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PM Howard in Islamabad

Transcript Of The Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP, Press Conference,
Serena Hotel, Islamabad

Subject: aid to Pakistan; visit to Afghanistan; polls; Van Nguyen; Michelle Leslie

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen I am of course delighted to be in Pakistan. This is the first time I have visited this country as Prime Minister. I’ve expressed in the past my admiration for President Musharraf, his stoic role in the fight against terrorism, the personal courage he himself has displayed in the face of a number of assassination attempts and the crucial part he has played in the success in Afghanistan and the wider message that sends in the fight against terrorism is most important. At a time when Australia and other countries are more conscious than ever of the terrorist threat in and beyond our region, it’s very important that I express a sense of partnership, friendship and cooperation with President Musharraf. I am delighted of course to have the chance of reciprocating the visit he paid to our country earlier this year, to see him again and also the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Aziz, who I met for the first time at the Davos Connection meeting in Switzerland early this year.

I will announce today the details of the scholarships that I said would be made available when President Musharraf was in Australia and we are going to provide some $39 million to support 500 scholarships of both an undergraduate and postgraduate character for Pakistani nationals to study in Australia and over the next five years 200 Australian development scholarships will be offered through AusAID for postgraduate study and the remaining 300 scholarships will be part of the Australian Department of Education, Science and Training’s Endeavour Programme which enables high-achieving students, scholars and professionals to undertake study, research or professional development in Australia. And the Prime Minister and I will witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding confirming the new scholarship programme. I will, of course, have discussions with both the President and the Prime Minister today and tomorrow I will visit one of the areas so badly affected by the tragic earthquake, the humanitarian scale of which as a disaster is quite breathtaking.

Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you’ve mentioned before that Australia’s aid to Pakistan in the earthquake region is not exhausted but is it likely there will be more aid on top of the announcement of scholarships today?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would expect to say something about our contribution to the earthquake relief tomorrow. I would remind you that we have already provided some $14-15 million in direct aid. We have provided the military assistance. That is worth something between $15-20 million and I believe there is a case for more assistance given the humanitarian scale of the disaster and I hope to have something further to say on that issue tomorrow.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, can I go back to your trip to Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes certainly.

JOURNALIST:

Apart from the visit to the troops and (inaudible) what significance do you read into that trip given you were there for four hours, a very dangerous place. There must have been some value to it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the most important thing that I can do is to convey in the strongest personal way that I can, and that is by visiting them, the support the Australian people have for our troops. The respect they have for the professional job they are doing and how important it is to maintain them in the frontline in the war against terrorism. It’s one thing to ask people to go and do those things and to risk their lives. It adds some dimension to one’s commitment to be willing to go and see them where they are operating and to thank them personally on behalf of the Australian people and that is the principal, but not the only, reason why I went to Afghanistan. I think it is also very important to reassure the Government of Afghanistan and President Karzai that Australia remains committed. By my going it is certainly sending a message to our coalition partners that Australia continues to see herself as being actively involved in helping to further entrench democracy and good governance in Afghanistan. The long-term future of Afghanistan will be determined not only by successfully dealing with terrorism but also by entrenching democracy and good governance in that country and by visiting Kabul and seeing the President I was able to do that in a direct, personal way. One should never underestimate the long-term value even of a very short visit in circumstances where a government and a country is facing difficulty. It is very important to be willing to visit countries and to make it very plain where one’s priorities are.

JOURNALIST:

Having seen firsthand how tenuous the security situation is in Kabul, in retrospect was it wrong for Australia to draw down those special forces back in ’02.

PRIME MINISTER:

No it wasn’t because given the advice and the assessments that were made at the time it was a perfectly logical thing to do and it was a decision incidentally that had the support of both sides of politics in Australia. The very enthusiastic support of both sides of politics in Australia.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard there was a democracy message in the Afghan visit. Is there a democracy message for President Musharraf?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think President Musharraf’s Government is far more open and democratic than many former governments in this country and I don’t normally give public lectures to my hosts.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Howard, two major opinion polls in Australia show a marked decline in the Government’s position and they seem to point to industrial relations as the reason for that. Can you give us your response to those polls and tell us whether it is your judgment that they are reflecting public dissatisfaction with the IR changes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it seems obvious to me that the major reason for the turnaround in the Government’s fortunes in both polls is the unease in the community about the workplace relations changes. I understand this. These are very big changes and it is only natural in the face of a very strong and, in many respects, quite inaccurate fear campaign, it is only natural that people will feel a bit uneasy. It is always easier to establish a negative in the minds of the public with a big change like this than it is to assert the positive. The reason why we continue to persevere with these changes, and we will continue to persevere with these changes, is that we believe that they are in the long-term interests of the country. We believe that these changes will strengthen the economy, they will create more jobs, they will lay the basis for further real wage increases and they will underwrite the growth in prosperity and productivity in the Australian economy over the years ahead. Now that is why we are going to persevere with these changes and that is why we are committed to them but I do understand for the reasons I have outlined why people would at this stage, given the salience of the negative part of the assessment of these things, why people would be uneasy and I have no doubt that once these changes go through then the experience will fall well short of the catastrophe being predicted by our opponents and the public will, in my judgment, make appropriate assessments.

JOURNALIST:

With those figures it is a pretty high stakes game that you are playing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I have been in politics a very long time and every government goes through periods of having bad polls and no government worth its salt is going to be dissuaded from doing something it really believes is good for the country by one or two bad polls.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, some of your Senators seem to want some more changes made. Are you still open to changes in the Senate for legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have said very directly that I am certainly happy to finetune or make some adjustments that better express the Government’s goals provided we don’t alter the fundamentals of the legislation. I said that a couple of weeks ago and that remains my position but they are changes at the margin, they are finetuning changes which are designed to better express the Government’s goals or to remove any ambiguities. But the fundamentals of the legislation, the national system, the unfair dismissal changes, the greater prominence given to agreements at the workplace level, the Fair Pay Commission, all of those fundamentals they are important to the changes but I understand why there is this feeling in the community and I say to my fellow Australians that that is a perfectly natural thing given the sort of comments that have been made about this legislation. But equally I say to them that if we are to maintain the growth we’ve had, if we are to maintain our strong economy, we have to keep changing and reforming and building for the future and that is what these changes are about and that is why the Government will persevere with them.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, [inaudible] that this is the public sentiment about industrial relations changes in play? Do you believe that these polls suggests there is a need for the Government perhaps to spend more on advertising in educating the public as to what you are doing?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. No, I don’t. I believe there is a cycle in these things. I believe that when you have a big reform of this kind the first runner out of the blocks is always the runner of doom and criticism. It always gets, he always gets a mile in front because it’s easy. It’s easier to say that the world is going to come to an end and weekends are going to be abolished, the family barbeque will be a distant memory. It is easy to say those things and understandably people will think that but when the legislation comes in and none of these things come about then many people will look back and say well it was a fear campaign after all.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard in the case of Mr Nguyen in Singapore, although it would seem there is a slim chance with the International Court of Justice, isn’t it worth exhausting that chance?

PRIME MINISTER:

The International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction. The only people who can stop the execution of Mr Nguyen are the people comprising the Government of Singapore. It is an executive decision. I mean let’s not beat about the bush. There is nothing illegal about what the Singaporean Government is doing. Quite a number of countries have the death penalty. The United States, many states of the United States have the death penalty. So I know feelings are running strongly and I feel, I met his mother and it was a very moving experience and I felt desperately sorry for her. She is a dear woman who is understandably feeling completely desolate and distressed and I wished I could have found it within my executive power to have done something but it is a matter for the Government of Singapore and I don’t know that we help her suffering by pretending that there are things that can be done that are going to bring about the change other than the only thing that will bring about the change and that is a change in the attitude of the Singaporean Government. And the more international constructs, in a sense, that are brought to bear on the issue, the less likely rather than the more likely it is for the Singaporean Government to change its mind. I do not believe, and I am sorry to have to say this, I do not believe the Government of Singapore will change its position. Now I have to say that and I owe it to Mr Nguyen’s family, I owe it to the Australian people to give an honest opinion at where I stand. I have spent more time talking to people who matter in this issue than anybody else and that sadly and very reluctantly is my conclusion.

JOURNALIST:

There have been some suggestions, sir, of while sanctions, official sanctions have been ruled out, that perhaps a consumer-led boycott, Optus for example …

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I do not believe these things should be traded off. The Government will not be imposing sanctions, formal or informal, we won’t be. What individuals do is of course in a democracy a matter for them but I am not issuing any public requests for people to do that. It’s a matter for them, but I am certainly not associating myself with it. I have to take a lot of considerations into account and I have done that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister is there any scope at CHOGM for seeking, perhaps lobbying by other governments on this case, governments who oppose the death penalty?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think the members of CHOGM want to give CHOGM an authority. I thought the whole history of CHOGM was that they resisted the body. You know there was time when there were appeals to the Privy Council but I thought we had moved on.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister the only people who can change this as you say are the Singaporean Government....?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) from other governments.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think, I think you are, with respect, misreading the temper of the Government of Singapore.

JOURNALIST:

So the Government can do nothing more, your Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have done everything we can do. We have made all the representations possible and if you imagine that by us trying to do a run-around at CHOGM to get some kind of resolution, informal or otherwise, calling on the Government of Singapore, I do not believe that would be appreciated by the other members of CHOGM let alone the Government of Singapore. There are quite a number of countries who are represented at that meeting who would not want the spotlight of international opinion focussed too heavily on certain domestic affairs of their own.

JOURNALIST:

But in your bilaterals, in meetings with other leaders of countries…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but that is all about getting, building pressure for some kind of statement out of CHOGM to the Singaporean Government and that would not work and it would not be appreciated by the other governments.

JOURNALIST:

Do you believe that the more pressure that is being put on the Singapore Government, the less likely they are to act (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Certainly public lecturing, in my experience, dealing with this Government and dealing with many other governments is not going to work. They have a strong view about drugs. The Prime Minister stated to me that this represented to me, what 20,000 doses of heroin? How many deaths, he said, would that have caused. That was his argument to me. Now that is the basis of their position. They feel very strongly about it. I don’t agree with his position on this. I profoundly disagree because there are very particular circumstances but you have to understand how strongly they feel about it and you have to understand that if in their view, this is their argument not mine, an exception is made for an Australian then there will be pressure to make exceptions for nationals of Singapore and of other countries because many of them have been executed.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister on the case of Michelle Leslie, a double-barrel question, do you share concerns that she may profit from her experience in Indonesia and secondly do you, there are concerns expressed that if, when telling her story, she embarrasses in some way the Indonesian authorities by the circumstances surrounding her release, that they may hurt future Australians who get themselves into trouble in Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Geof, many Australians including me, do not believe that she should profit from telling her story. If you want my opinion, that’s my opinion. But the question of whether that is a breach of the law is not a matter for me, it’s a matter for the relevant authorities. Plainly one of the issues involved in my, having the view I do, is tied up with the second part of your question. I think it is a fair observation that a lot of Australians understandably have spent a lot of time asking the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian people to be sensitive about Australian concerns about the activities of particular Australians in Indonesia. I think there is a reciprocity here and that reciprocity is that we have some sensitivity towards the Indonesians’ position. Now I am pleased for her sake that the sentence was so light and I am happy that she has been reunited with her loved ones in Australia but I have made my own, personal view plain in relation to the other matter.Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister just a quick question on Pakistan.

PRIME MINISTER:

A quick question on Pakistan, yes they are doing very well in the Second Test.

JOURNALIST:

The activity of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the terrorist group in Pakistani territories, a big issue for Australians obviously because some people are accused of training for them and seeking to kill Australians. Why do you think Australians who are able, allegedly, to train with that group under the noses of such a strong military as Pakistan has and why do you think that group can exist in those circumstances?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I find it hard to give a comprehensive answer to either of those questions. I would imagine that the activities of organisations like that will come up in our discussions. Thank you.

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