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Press Conference: PM Clark meets PM Howard

Transcript Of The Prime Minister The Hon John Howard MP Joint Press Conference With The Prime Minister Of New Zealand Helen Clark, Parliament House, Canberra

Subject: RU486; single currency; Super 14; sport; anti-nuclear policy; AWB

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

The Prime Minister of New Zealand and I have had a very friendly and full discussion as is typical of the exchanges that we have now had over a number of years. The relationship between our two countries could not be closer or better, but nonetheless we have both taken the view that it’s important not to take that closeness for granted. And that is why we have regularly embraced, if I could put it this way, the discipline of bilateral meetings in each other’s countries each year.

We spent some time talking about the East Asia Summit and the future of that body. We’re both very well satisfied with the outcome of the inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur. We feel that as a body it can make a very big contribution to relations between the countries involved. We don’t see it as replacing APEC and we don’t see it as supplanting the important bilateral relations between each of our countries and other countries in the region. But we do see it as an expression of a reality and that is that if you are looking to the future of the region, of the East Asia area of the world, you can’t, shouldn’t and won’t exclude Australia and New Zealand because Australian and New Zealand are modern, sophisticated western countries with economies that are performing well. We have very close trade links with the countries of the region and it is an elementary exercise in commonsense that Australia and New Zealand should be part of the East Asia Summit.

On bilateral issues we both, particularly at the gathering involving Ministers, noted the progress being made in relation to economic affairs. The regular contact between Michael Cullen and Peter Costello has been a feature of that. We’re very pleased at the coming into operation of the new passport arrangements that mean a common queue for Australians and New Zealanders in eastern Australian airports. That’s a very valuable bringing forward of a practical measure to improve the flow of people between Australia and New Zealand and there are many instances where that will lighten the elements of travel between our two countries.

So can I, Prime Minister, welcome you again to Canberra, to thank you for the commitment you make to these regular gatherings. The Prime Minister and I, of course, have seen a lot of each other over the last few months at the Pacific Islands Forum, at the APEC Meeting, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and at the East Asia Summit meeting. But the bilateral relationship is tremendously important and it’s been a high priority of mine in the 10 years I’ve been Prime Minister and it has of Ms Clark’s. I appreciate that very much and we’ll continue to keep it that way. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

Thank you John and we appreciate the commitment you make to the bilateral relationship. As you say, we meet a number of times each year, probably four, five, six on average, with the other international commitments and common memberships that we have. But this meeting is a time set aside for Australia and New Zealand to discuss issues which are on our minds. As you said, the bilateral relationship is in very good shape and I think that one of the most important developments four to five years ago was the agreement that the Treasurers would meet on a regular basis. That’s enabled us to take the economic relationship to whole new levels, beyond the free trade agreement which was CER of 23 years ago into the single economic market issues. And I’m very impressed when I look over the last year at just how much has been done in terms of harmonisation and alignment between the two systems. Now there’s a forward work programme which is far reaching; there’s a meeting to come in about two weeks time between your Treasurer and our Minister of Finance. We have a major review of the structure of business taxation underway this year which will raise the imputation issues from another angle and I think both our countries know that needs a fresh look at it. We’re expressing an interest in seeing if discussion might be possible at some point on an investment protocol to CER, but in summary there are a lot of issues on the go.

We’ve had the opportunity to thoroughly debrief from the East Asia Summit which both of us have seen as a very significant development and we need now to be working on ways to take it forward as a meaningful addition to the regional architecture in East Asia. A lot of diplomacy from both Australia and New Zealand was involved in getting the seat at that table in the first instance. That was important, now the challenge is to build on it in a meaningful way.

We’ve also discussed today our common involvement in Afghanistan. Australia’s taking the step of setting up a provincial reconstruction team. We’ve been there for two-and-a-half or so years now with one, it’s worked very well for us, and I think very well for the region which we’ve supported. And we’re very happy to share lessons we’ve learnt along the way with that.

Overall, our foreign policy is sharing many objectives internationally and around the region. We’ve spoken today of the importance of inter-faith dialogue. The debate that’s been raging in my country over the last thee to four days really brings that to the fore. How do we empower the moderates in the Islamic world? How do we try and build understanding between faiths? We’re both involved in sponsoring the inter-faith regional dialogue for Asia Pacific in Cebu in the Philippines next month following on your work with President Yudhoyono in getting the first dialogue started in Yogyakarta about 18 months ago. So I feel in many ways we’re working in common, to the same objectives of trying to develop a more peaceful and prosperous world, region and neighbourhood. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Thank you, well we can alternate with a few questions, we might start with our guests from New Zealand.

JOURNALIST:

Can you tell us more about what you discussed regarding the single market and especially in the context of the meeting in two weeks time?

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

Well at the meeting in two weeks time we’ll have a new treaty to sign. I understand that legislative changes around Trans-Tasman banking supervision to be forthcoming in both countries. We’ve just discussed and progressed at our Cabinet Business Committee yesterday the renewed memorandum of understanding on business law with a revised action agenda. There’s a comprehensive agenda being looked at across, cross-border recognition of companies, competition and consumer regulation, financial reporting, cross-border insolvency, intellectual property and so on. One point I raised today which has come out of our discussion yesterday in New Zealand on the alignment and harmonising we are achieving is that having achieved it we then need to keep updating it because sometimes we respond to new policy challenges and our own jurisdictions which take us away from the alignment and harmonisation objectives that we had. But I feel there’s a lot of traction around these issues now, building a seamless market for business to operate Trans-Tasman and that will be to the benefit of both economies.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard were you disappointed that there will be no single regulator of the banking sector?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

I think the arrangements that have been put in place are sensible and realistic, they don’t preclude over time, depending on how the character of the close economic relationship goes, they don’t preclude the ultimate emergence of it. But all of these things need to be, how should I put it, energetically incremental. You can’t expect overnight to bring it in, but you’ve got to be moving in the right direction. I mean you are dealing with two countries that have a lot in common, a growing business and commercial relationship but we are still dealing with two sovereign entities and that has to be respected and we continue to do that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Clark the abortion drug RU486 has been available in your country since 2001 I believe, can you tell us, has it been responsible for any deaths in that period and your reflections on its impact since its introduction?

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

Well not wanting to be drawn into any debate in Australia on the issue, to the best of my knowledge, I am a relatively close follower of what’s in the news in New Zealand, it’s not creating headlines.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister there’s obviously been a strong argument that regardless of your views on the safety or ethical elements of RU486, there are good reasons why some ministerial oversights should been retained. What’s your view on those arguments and as Mr Speers was asking you, how are you going to vote?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well I will indicate how I am going to vote when it gets a little closer to the time when I am required to indicate it. But I am looking at the debate very carefully, I think there are number of issues that have to be considered, not only the medical implications of it but also the principle that important decisions affecting the community should be made by people who are accountable directly to the community. I have never been one incidentally who believes it makes much sense to devote an enormous amount of time and energy and commitment of one’s life to win election to parliament and to a high office of decision making, and then spend the next stage of your life busily handing over the authority to make decisions to people who are not accountable. I am a great believer in the practice of politics I made that clear when I addressed the National Press Club and it’s the foundation of my very strong objections to the idea of a Bill of Rights in Australia. I do not embrace the idea that it’s a good thing for important issues where people have strong views, and the very fact that everybody who is asking so many questions indicates that people have strong views on it yet; the people who are elected and are accountable according to one doctrine are somehow or other not to be trusted to make decisions. Now having said that, there are other aspects to it and I understand the argument that this is not an argument fundamentally about abortion it is an argument about the process of approving a practice of abortion in certain circumstances. Now that’s why I decided there should be a free vote and I want to be fair to both points of view. I’ll indicate in no uncertain terms where I stand a little later on in the debate. I want to allow my colleagues, and I have very close colleagues on both sides of the argument, I want to allow them to make their contributions and when the time comes, people will be in no doubt how I vote and in no doubt why I vote in that particular direction.

JOURNALIST:

Is the safety of the drug a political issue Mr Howard, is the safety of the drug a political issue?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

All of these things, Michelle, involve considerations affecting the community and I think it is pointless trying to subdivide the argument and say this is more important than another. Self evidently this is not an ordinary drug, you don’t have questions at a news conference involving the Prime Minister of Australia and the Prime Minister of another country about a flu tablet. This is not an ordinary drug. I mean let’s be realistic, let’s apply a test of commonsense to this, because of its properties it deserves serious consideration and the more serious that consideration, if you are in favour of accountability in government and the way I read the newspapers recently you are all in favour of that as I am, fully, then there is a very strong argument for giving appropriate weight to the first part of the answer that I gave.

JOURNALIST:

Can you envisage a time when Australia and New Zealand have a single currency and could I also ask Ms Clark, isn’t it somewhat shameful to both Australia and New Zealand that on the eve of the new season of Super 14 Rugby, there is no Pacific country representation? Shouldn’t both countries be doing more to facilitate that?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well can I just say in relation to the second part of that question, I think if you look at the councils and the background of the councils of international rugby over the last few years, you will find that Australia and New Zealand–and I speak with some vigour on behalf of Australia, and Ms Clark can speak for New Zealand–have been in the forefront of trying to get a better deal for the rugby players of the Pacific Island countries. And I would like to see that happen, I think it’s great that it’s now a Super 14. I had in mind the flood of people across the Tasman and from other places to Australia for the rugby matches when I talked about those single queues. In relation to the first question, look, I think that’s something time will tell. I am not pushing for a single currency. We are two sovereign, independent, close, friendly countries, but we are separate countries and I think it’s always somewhat, how shall I put it, you know needlessly provocative for Australian Prime Ministers to be calling for this or that on a single basis. I don’t know whether we will have single currencies or not. I think to give up control of your currency is a very big step. It’s one of the arguments behind the reluctance of many people, correctly in my view, in the United Kingdom to not join the Euro. And I’m not pushing for a single currency. If it comes and there’s a natural momentum in both countries, dictated by economics and business, so be it. But it’s not a policy objective of my Government.

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

It’s one of those things that’s never been ruled either in or out. It’s of course far more complex than just what dollar rattles in people’s pockets. It involves a convergence of monetary policy. The two countries tend to have somewhat different business cycles, there are similarities but there are differences because of the different mix of commodities, in particular. I’ve followed the debate about the Euro with a lot of interest. Britain has never entered the Euro precisely because of the monetary policy and business cycle implications; those are very important considerations. If it could be shown to be of economic benefit to our country, we’d seriously put it on the agenda, but there are a lot of question marks on that. On the comment about Pacific rugby, I can only agree with John. The issue actually came onto the Pacific Islands Forum agenda at the forum held in Auckland in 2003, and we both pushed for the Forum to take a position in advocating for Pacific rugby at the International Rugby Board, and some things began to develop from there.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister I’m not sure if you saw the Allan Border medal last night, the other night, or Ricky Ponting’s reaction to some of the comments that were made there. But given what he said, and I guess the stoush between Jana Pittman and Tamsyn Lewis, do you think Australian sports people are taking themselves too seriously at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well I think there are occasions when the constant glare of publicity and the constant need to give press conferences, and to give answers, leads to it. I think part of it is the media exposure of sports men and women. You’ve got to give a press conference after every event. I mean we love giving press conferences, we in politics, but not every sports man or woman has that. I mean you have to understand they’ve got to find something to say and I think sometimes it just is very hard not to give that impression. But I don’t know that they’re people who want to give that impression. Look I think Ricky Ponting, who I’ve got to know a good deal more in the time that he’s been the Australian Captain, I think he’s a man who takes his job very seriously, he’s very fond of the game and I think you’ve got to bear that in mind before making harsh judgements.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Clark it appears that the National Party’s on the verge of dumping its plan for a referendum on the anti-nuclear policy, what’s your view on that? Perhaps Prime Minister Howard might have a view on that as well?

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

Well given that the previous position was that the nuclear-free policy should be gone by lunch time, looks now to be reversed by February, I just think there’s a bit of lack of credibility in that quarter on that issue. They’ve tossed policies around like confetti on this over the last 15 years. If that’s the latest iteration, my question would be how long will it last?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Clark, Jordan’s talking about stopping trade with New Zealand over the cartoon issue, what’s your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER CLARK:

We’re aware of some initiatives from Jordanian members of Parliament. We’re very closely monitoring official reactions in the Middle East. For the record I’ve been saying for several days that in New Zealand we absolutely defend the right of free speech, but of course part of free speech is if you don’t like a decision someone’s made, you’re bound to say so. And I’ve said very firmly that I feel the decision to publish in New Zealand was ill-judged and gratuitous. I’ve said for the record that neither the publication, nor the extreme reactions to publication do anything to advance understanding between faiths. I think it’s important in today’s world that we start talking to each other, not across each other, and that’s why we’re both I think giving such priority to matters like inter-faith dialogue, which in the past haven’t come on to the agenda of governance, but in today’s world, with the level of animosity between the Muslim world on the street and the Western world, it becomes an issue of very pressing importance.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

I think it might be time to for an Australian question. This will have to be the last.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you are confident that Mr Vaile never met with BHP executives to retrieve a debt?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

I am confident that what he said was true and I’m also confident that what Mr Downer said was true. I make the other observation that we have now a situation where all of these matters are being examined in a very proper judicial fashion by an eminent Australian lawyer, with the benefit of all of the documents. This is a very unusual situation. Mr Cole has all of the DFAT documents, he has all of the relevant documents, so I’m advised from my Department; there aren’t many, but he has them. He also, unlike the Government, unlike any of you, unlike the Opposition, has access to all of the AWB documents. He’s probably the first person in the world to have access to all of the documents because there’s some suggestion that the Volcker inquiry did not have access to all of them. Now this gives him a great opportunity and a great capacity to get to the bottom of the matter. He’s indicated incidentally that he doesn’t feel constrained by the current terms of reference. They allow him to make findings of fact in relation to the behaviour not only of AWB people but also of officials. He said that if he wants broader terms of reference he’ll ask for them. Now in those circumstances this is an unprecedentedly transparent approach, unprecedentedly transparent. I wonder if the Government of any other country whose companies were named in the Volcker inquiry have been as transparent, and openly so, as this Government have been. Now that doesn’t mean that people such as you can’t go on asking questions, or the Opposition can’t go on asking questions. But I find it a bit rich in the light of all the claims that were made by the Opposition that we were covering things up and we were telling lies and behaving corruptly and all these other absurd over-the-top statements. I can’t think of a process that could be more transparent and the blame will fall where it may and Cole will inquire. He’ll do it without fear or favour as he rightly said in his statement. He’ll do it independently and we’ll know the result. And in the meantime, I know you will keep asking me questions, but I think it has to be seen in that context. You don’t often get that kind of alignment of inquiry and accountability.

Thank you.

[ends]

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