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PM Howard on Cole Com; asylum seekers; David Hicks

Transcript Of The Prime Minister The Hon John Howard MP
Press Conference, Phillip Street, Sydney

Subject: Cole Commission; asylum seekers; David Hicks; tax.

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I said earlier this morning before I appeared at the Commission that I would make myself available to answer questions I didn’t feel able, for reasons I hope you will understand, to answer questions which anticipated what I might say to the Commission. I want to repeat what I said this morning, that this Government, alone amongst governments around the world, has established a public inquiry with the powers of a royal commission. The significance of that is that a royal commission can compel the production of documents and the only way that in my submission, or my view that I can, that one can get to the bottom of something like this is to have a capacity to compel the production of documents. I might observe that there have been two, in a sense, seminal moments in investigating allegations about corruption. Those seminal moments were, of course, the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, which unlocked the documents in Baghdad and the establishment of the Cole Inquiry with the powers of a royal commission, which have unlocked other documents. Now I don’t think it is proper for me to embellish that any further. That is a matter now in the hands of the Commission. But by appearing, by establishing the inquiry, by appearing, by seeing two senior ministers appear, this Government has demonstrated its transparency, its openness and its accountability.

Let me deal with this issue of the terms of reference yet again. There is nothing to stop a finding of fact by the Commissioner that I knew, Mr Downer, or Mr Vaile knew. And has anybody suggested if a finding of fact of that kind were made, that would not have certain consequences? It would. So this business that is coming out of Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd and, with respect, the 23 lawyers is nonsense. The Commissioner has the power to make a finding of fact. He has also said that if he comes across evidence that people other than those covered by the terms of reference are guilty of offences against the Commonwealth, he will ask for an extension of his terms of reference. Now questions of ministerial competence and let me say I defend to the full Mr Downer and Mr Vaile and their ministerial competence and I reject completely any absurd call by Mr Beazley for them to be sacked. Issues of ministerial competence are inevitably debated in the political arena. It is for a commission such as Mr Cole’s Commission to establish whether there have been breaches of the law and to make findings of fact. It is for the political process and for you, ladies and gentlemen, and for the parliamentary process to deal with issues of ministerial competence and those who confuse the two, conflate the two, blend the two, ought to take a lesson in the separation of powers. It is palpable nonsense what Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd are going on with and they know it.

Look it is very simple, when you have a Prime Minister and two senior ministers fronting a commission on oath and answering questions you can hardly be said to run a government that is hiding something, covering up something. I mean they keep changing their tune. First of all we were corrupt, then we were covering up things, then we were turning a blind eye, then we were incompetent. The reality is that we alone have exposed ourselves to the rigour of this kind of public inquiry and like everybody else I await the findings. Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST:

(Inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

(Inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes that was the letter in October of 2005. It included a legal opinion from Sir Anthony Mason, the former Chief Justice of Australia. It would appear that he is one of the people that was misled by AWB.

JOURNALIST:

Were you surprised about that? PRIME MINISTER:

Look I am not going comment on the examination in chief. It is not appropriate for me to do that, I mean that is something, hang on, can I just finish answering Mr Fraser’s question? You want to know am I surprised why I wasn’t cross examined, look I am not going to offer any opinion about the cross examination. That would not be proper. Now Mr Lester.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you have repeatedly insisted that you and your senior ministers did not know and used that as a defence. Isn’t it increasingly becoming a condemnation of your Government, that over so many years you remained ignorant of this whole affair?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not if there was an absence of hard evidence, no.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think there was an absence of hard evidence?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely, absolutely.

JOURNALIST:

So you don’t think there is any failing on the part of anyone in the Government in relation to this?

PRIME MINISTER:

I do not believe that the judgements that were made by the relevant people in the Departments at the time, using a test of the reasonableness should be criticised.

JOURNALIST:

Given that you were so right, Mr Howard, about rorting of the Oil-for-Food program though, do you think it is, in a sense, more reasonable to just rely on your belief that AWB was an honest company as it was a main [inaudible] ?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am glad you asked me that because one of the things that I should point out is because of the peculiar operation of the Parliamentary Privileges Act, reference could not be made before the commission to my statement to Parliament. And the statement to Parliament goes into a bit more detail on the question of the rorting and the rorting of which I was speaking then was overwhelmingly in relation to exports of oil from Iraq and the re-export of imported food stuffs using the proceeds of that re-export to buy weapons. If you go back to the open sources to which I referred, namely Jack Straw’s address and I know you all have a copy of that and we can make it available if you haven’t and also the speech made by, or the statement released by the American State Department, it is that rorting to which I was overwhelmingly referring in that speech. Can I also add Michelle; I was not just relying on my personal assessment in relation to AWB. I mean that implies, over here we have a whole lot of specific allegations, hard evidence against AWB and I said no, that can’t be right because AWB is a very good company. I mean you had an absence of hard evidence and you had a situation where AWB had a very high standing. AWB had an iconic link with the wheat growers of Australia stretching back to the 1930s and therefore there was an operating belief that AWB was an organisation of integrity and it is just that at no stage did it enter my mind that AWB was corrupt, until 2005 when I began to develop concerns about it after the Volcker complaint and I think I have explained to you before the substance of that and from then on, of course, I followed the process of the Volcker Inquiry and we got the report and so on.

JOURNALIST:

On October the 31st last year you described AWB and their executives as (Inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that was still my understanding at that time. I developed suspicions. I still found it very, I still found I hard to believe then, that they would be, you know, the people I had some knowledge of, I still found it hard to believe then. I think the point here Jim, and it is the point I made earlier, establishing the Commission of Inquiry with the powers to compel the production of documents has altered the whole thing. Now who did that? The Howard Government did that, nobody else. The opposition didn’t do that, with respect, the media didn’t do that. We did that. By doing that, we have altered the whole thing

JOURNALIST:

Mr Downer said that DFAT had done a good job, [Inaudible] professional. Are you prepared to say your ministers have done a good job?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe my ministers have done a good job, I support them and I stand by them and I think Downer has been an outstanding foreign minister.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, can you honestly say to the Australian people that when you made your address to the Press Club, when you said that Saddam Hussein had cruelly and cynically manipulated the Oil-for-Food programme. Can you honestly say to the Australian people that when you said that you were utterly unaware, your ministers were utterly unaware that, in fact, Australia was a leading co-conspirator with that regime?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely, absolutely and I can say this. That what I then had in mine and in particular was the way in which he had rorted the programme by exporting oil outside the sanctions regime, by re-exporting imported foodstuff, by deliberately delaying the importation of some foodstuffs in order to increase the level of suffering on his people so that he could blame the rest of the world for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Can I remind you that at the time the major concern, the major debate around the world about the Oil-for-Food programme was not the rorting of it. That was not the major debate. The major debate was whether it was too severe and whether it was imposing too severe a sanction on the Iraqi people and whether it should be changed and in fact that was the subject of a report by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which was published, I think in 2000. So the debate about the Oil-for-Food programme and the sanctions regime associated with it, predominantly in the years leading up to military operation against Iraq…can I just finish because I think this is quite important, because I do remember this very clearly. The real debate was whether it was too severe and whether it should loosened. But if you are asking me can I honestly say to the Australian people, when I made that speech that I had no knowledge of wrong doing by AWB, yes I can say that, very honestly.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister your statement says that there were four cables that you believe your staff…

PRIME MINISTER:

…I beg your pardon…

JOURNALIST:

…Your statement says that their were four cables of the cables in question that you believe your staff did not see and you said this morning as I understood it that it is likely that they did see the others (inaudible)…

PRIME MINISTER:

…yes…

JOURNALIST:

..Why didn’t they show you those?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ll tell you why. Let me take you, two of them of the 17 were essentially about travel arrangements about AWB to Baghdad. Another couple of them were talking points for the embassy in Washington in dealing with American enquiries; sure there was the Bronte Moules cable and the Captain Puckett cable and the US Wheat Associates cable. I wasn’t asked about the Wheat Associates issue this morning. But if I had of been and what I might have said, and I am not saying I should have been, let me make that clear. What I would have said is that one of the reasons why there was a disposition in the Government at the time to treat cynically remarks and criticisms made by the US Wheat Associates was not only their fierce commercial rivalry with the Australian wheat industry. But in fact in April, I think to be precise, the 11th, April in 2003, Wheat Associates had circulated a newsletter saying that the Australian Government had pretended to make a generous donation of wheat to Iraq when in fact that hadn’t happened, that the wheat had been paid for out of the Oil-for-Food programme. Yet two days earlier, Mr Downer in a release had pointed out that when the money became unlocked from the Oil-for-Food programme, sure the wheat was paid for out of that but the money we were going to use to buy the wheat from AWB, we then contributed to the reconstruction of Iraq. No you can understand why, and I defend fully DFAT in relation to this. You can understand why against that kind of background, as well as the background of the whole, I mean let’s face it, the Wheat Associates and the AWB are hardly a world in union so to speak as far as dealing with some of these issues.

JOURNALIST:

You said this morning that you were ready to believe the worst of Saddam’s regime...

PRIME MINISTER:

…Yes absolutely…

JOURNALIST:

…(Inaudible) and ready to believe the best of AWB.

PRIME MINISTER:

…No, I didn’t say that. What I said, I did not say that...

JOURNALIST:

My question is…

PRIME MINISTER:

…I know what your question is, I am not going to stop you asking the question Karen but please don’t misrepresent what I said.

JOURNALIST:

Ok. We have heard in evidence that there was an assumption in the government that at least some of these allegations were coming from US Wheat Associates because they were [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the judgements that were made at the time, using a test of reasonableness, are ones that can be defended.

JOURNALIST:

Knowing what you do now about the warnings that went to various parts of the government over this period, should any of those warnings have gone to you or any of your ministers and been actioned upon, and sir, if I could, do you expect to be reading more cables these days?

PRIME MINISTER:

The cable selection process that is made for me is appropriate. You are asking me to do the impossible and that is to say, armed with the knowledge I now have, how do I judge earlier events. Well that is unreasonable and I am not going to do it because the only judgement that can be made of the conduct of people at that time is a judgement conditioned by their knowledge at that time, not an after-acquired judgement in our time, you know that and I think the Australian people know that.

JOURNALIST:

In retrospect what do you make of this whole episode [inaudible]. Your Government and your Cabinet gave much greater priority to securing the wheat market for Australia than it did to policing and checking the UN sanctions regime?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul it is true we gave a very high priority to defending and protecting the interests of Australian wheat growers but not to our knowledge or with any sense of deliberation, or in any positive way, not at the cost of principle, or of the cost of, to our knowledge undermining the sanctions regime. If you are saying were we guilty of looking after Australia’s wheat growers, yes. Were we guilty of turning a blind eye to corruption in order to look after the Australian wheat growers, no. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have established this inquiry. There has been an enormous amount of talk over the past few days and I have seen eminent professors from distant places on evening programmes giving us the benefit of their views about international law. It is true that we have legal obligations under Resolution 661 and we have never disputed that. Has it ever occurred to anybody that the Cole Inquiry is part of this Government’s discharge of that legal obligation?

JOURNALIST:

Would you expect them to make a finding on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Who, the Cole Inquiry? I haven’t the faintest idea what they will find. The point I am making is there are certain obligations assumed by member states under 661 and we pass customs regulations etcetera etcetera. The point I am making is that we are in fact continuing our obligations by having this investigation. Can we try somebody who hasn’t had a go. Mr Bongiorno hasn’t had a go.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister…

PRIME MINISTER:

Rule on this, you’re the President of the gallery.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul would you yield to the lady?

JOURNALIST:

Just following up on Paul Kelly’s question, does the Custom Regulations Act have any meaning whatsoever in light of the evidence that we’ve now seen before this inquiry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Does it have any meaning? Yes it does, it does. But let me take you, no let me take, yes well let me take you through that. You have Resolution 661, and then you have a whole series of other resolutions, and you have established to take over from the sanctions committee, the 661 committee, you have the Office of Iraqi Programme. Now under that, and under the arrangement that was worked out, the operational responsibility for vetting the contracts was assumed by the Office of Iraq Programmes and if you think that’s wrong, can I ask you to have a look at Paul Volcker’s report? Can I refer you to page 27 of his September 2005 report in which he said that customs experts in the UN were meant to check contracts for fraud or deceit? In his final report he said that subsequent to 661 and he’s talking of the adoption of all these other resolutions, the Office of Iraq Programmes, received, as best as I can recall, an unprecedentedly central role in vetting and approving contracts worth billions of dollars and what I am putting to you is simply this. Sure, you have the formal obligations under 661, not walking away from that, and that’s been referred to by some of the eminent professors. But in practice, what happened in the arrangement that was hammered out is that, first, a sanctions committee and then when it got too burdensome for them, then the Office of Iraq Programmes assumes the operational responsibility to vet and to use Volcker’s words, they had experts to check for deceit and for fraud. Now if that doesn’t put on them, the operational responsibility to do, to carry out checks, and if they give the contracts a tick, in my view, in the absence of specific hard evidence suggesting another course of conduct, DFAT was entitled to give the certificates.

JOURNALIST:

On the Puckett cable, have you asked your relevant advisers why that cable was never brought to your attention, especially in light of your earlier remarks about the rorting of the sanctions? What reason did they give for not bringing that particular cable to your attention?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the reason that has been given, not just in relation to my advisers but generally in relation to responses to that, was that firstly, it refers to a process for dealing with a couple of contracts which involve three parties of which the Government was not one. As I understand it, those two contracts had already been approved and the arrangement was that they would be dealt with by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the World Food Programme and AWB. In other words, the Government itself, because the approval had been given, the Government itself was not part of that process. I think it’s also fair to say and I don’t mean this in any condescending way about the Captain, I am not suggesting that for a moment. There were, as alluded to in the cable, there were some, there was, you know, how should we put it, there was some confusion in the early days of the establishment of this system. I think you have to once again look at how people reacted at the time against the background of the knowledge that they had. I mean we are all looking at these things in hindsight and it is incredibly unreasonable and unfair to do that without making proper allowance for what informed their minds and what was in their minds, and I mean, I hold the view that people in AWB, you know, traded on the immense level of trust that existed.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) contract…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes well in fact it was informed by the same source that informed the document that Mr Long circulated and sent around and in fact the allegation of all, was not of itself completely correct. But it doesn’t alter the substance of the other things I have said.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) are you now saying that the Australian Government, the Australian Government have no legal obligation on it to check the bone fides of the contract as well as the operational onus on it to check…

PRIME MINISTER:

What I am saying Paul is that…no there was a general legal obligation on all member states flowing from Resolution 661, nobody is running away from that. But in working out the arrangement, unless you were going to have a parallel vetting process, what was worked out was, firstly, the application goes through, in our case the Australian Government, if on the face of it, it’s appropriate, in other words it deals with goods that are subject to certain conditions, permissible exports, then it goes off to the UN, it’s for the UN with its experts able to check for fraud and deceit, to look at price and to look at value and then when they give the tick in the absence of hard contrary evidence, I mean if somebody, if the thing had come back and in the meantime, somebody had walked in to DFAT and said you know, here’s evidence, you know clear evidence that this is a dodgy contract and if they’d have approved it then, that would have wrong.

JOURNALIST:

On the process (inaudible) can I just ask this question again, that if you accept there was a legal (inaudible)…?

PRIME MINISTER:

There was a legal onus on the Australian Government to uphold Resolution 661 and part of the discharge of that onus is what we are now engaged in.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned about the performance of your ministers in the discharge of that obligation?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I am not because I believe that what was worked out between the Australian Government and the UN, I mean essentially dictated by the United Nations, was not only an entirely reasonable arrangement, but created a situation where absent, some direct evidence to the contrary, it was reasonable and proper in discharge of our obligation to rely on the expert vetting as Volcker refers to it, carried out by the Office of Iraqi Programmes. Mr Lester.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you Mr Howard. Another issue that you were not questioned on this morning was how it was that your senior international adviser came to be paraphrased as giving advice to AWB that it should keep its responses to Volcker narrow, technical, don’t blame the US and complain about the process. How do you justify that in the light of your claims of complete openness with Volcker?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Tim, firstly I don’t admit that he said it.

JOURNALIST:

Did you have a view on it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well hang on, hang on, hang on, I don’t know what he said and I gather that he’s been asked to provide a statement so leave me out of it and I naturally wouldn’t be seeking to talk to him, I mean just leave me out of it. It’s a matter for him and the Commission now. But can I tell you this, that I wasn’t there, it’s my broad understanding that he doesn’t entirely agree with what’s been said about what he is alleged to have said, so you are asking me to comment on something that somebody has alleged to have said when I wasn’t present and in relation to which, I am not sure he admits he said. So I think, I mean even by the standards of these sort of gatherings, I think we’ll leave me out of that. I think… we can’t hear. Karen, yes, then Michael.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you said previously that if it was down to the UN (inaudible) that it would be game over and that (inaudible) what do you mean by that, do you mean that we would have (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there would be political consequences. No, Karen, come on, you are an imaginative lot, I mean you know, a lot can be said of you, but collectively you do not lack imagination.

JOURNALIST:

I am just trying to find what you mean by game over.

PRIME MINISTER:

No look, it’s a very well understood expression.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) cross examination (inaudible) the fact that DFAT was relying on AWB for reassurance about (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the reality is that, and I choose my words carefully, I don’t want to be saying something that I shouldn’t be saying at this particular time but I think I can say this, that it appears to me as though AWB has successfully, well successfully is the wrong word, but up until now, has misled the following; it has misled the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it misled Mr Volcker because it didn’t provide all of the information that it wanted and it’s misled the United Nations. It appears to have misled a former Chief Justice of Australia, Sir Anthony Mason, whose opinion, I understand this is now in the public domain, provided very strong legal exculpation in relation to the behaviour of AWB, it’s misled the Wheat Export Authority and misled Ferrier Hodgson.

Now you say all that had to be done was somebody to pick up the phone. I mean can I say with respect against that kind of background and against the evidence that has come out before the inquiry, that is palpably wrong. It’s not the question, I mean the reality is that every time there was a discussion and when I dealt with the Volcker complaint in February of last year, and I was quite angry about that. It was the first time that it had been put to me by somebody who I have great respect for, that AWB had been guilty, possibly guilty of paying bribes. I spoke to Mr Vaile and said that he had to write in the strongest possible terms to the company, making sure that the company cooperated, and as well as writing, he rang. And I mean, AWB every time Ministers rang them they were going through denials. Now I mean you asked me direct, all you had to do was pick up the phone, that’s wrong Michael. I mean if you’d have picked up… well that’s said glibly as though, oh easy, just pick up the phone. I mean the point I’m making is that if a company systematically and successfully is able to mislead people in that list I’ve just given you, and leave the Government out of it, I mean Sir Anthony Mason is no slouch – he’s a former Chief Justice of Australia – and I commend reading of that opinion and you know he’s a man of great intellect, he’s got a razor sharp mind and he produces the opinion. And I think you’ve got to remember these things when you… I think on some… in some areas unreasonably attack people in DFAT – I mean leave Ministers aside – I mean they’re always attacked, mostly unreasonably but frequently attacked.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister the two specific cables you were questioned about today (inaudible) are you suggesting that if you had seen them, you wouldn’t have acted any differently?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I’m suggesting, I’m suggesting two things. I’m suggesting that it was not unreasonable or wrong of my adviser not to bring them to my attention. I don’t condemn my adviser. And the other thing I’m suggesting is that I believe, according to the circumstances of the time, and with the knowledge of the time, the response of DFAT – which had operational responsibility – now I’m very careful about…in the context of this, of saying who was responsible for what, I don’t want my remarks to be construed as sort of saying well you know all the fault of this, that or the other – I’m not saying that at all. It’s just that the operational responsibility for this whole matter was in DFAT and I think they, given the circumstances of the time, it would not be reasonable to criticise what they did.

JOURNALIST:

So there’s no (inaudible) if they had been seen by you or your Ministers? There wouldn’t have been any different action?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look you’re asking me to answer… I mean we get in to impossibly hypothetical questions. I can only give you a reflection on the conduct of people at the time according to the knowledge they had at the time because I think that is the only reasonable reflection that somebody in my position can give. I’m going to get in to this other business because it’s just unreasonable and it doesn’t achieve anything.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister…

JOURNALIST:

Yes Mr Farr.

JOURNALIST:

Would you think it appropriate for a senior member of your office staff to be giving any sort of strategic advice to AWB, to a private company who handles (inaudible) questions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Mr Farr I’m not going to comment on what Mr Sullivan, Mr O’Sullivan may or may not have said at the time, it’s just…no, no, look it depends what you mean by strategic advice. People come in to my office everyday talking to senior people in my office. I mean I’m given a list at the end of the day. I mean I don’t say to Arthur at the end of the day, who have you seen? I mean if he thinks I should know of something, he’ll tell me and if he doesn’t, well I mean his judgement is I’ve found over a long period of time, as with all my senior people, it’s very good. But look it just depends what you mean by strategic advice. I mean somebody might call in and talk to one of your advisers and say well, mate, you know nobody seems to be listening to me in so and so’s office. And you know the adviser might say, well write him a letter or ring him up or something or rather. I mean is that strategic advice? I mean what do you mean? I mean I’ve got advisers, I mean they don’t just sit there and say nothing. I mean this is the very kind of adviser that gets attacked, gets attacked by the business community, gets attacked by the media, I mean you’ve got to have people who’ve got some capacity to interact with people in the business community. It’s not easy. I mean when they do – and I don’t know what was said in this situation – they run the risk of sort of ending up on the front page of a newspaper, to their great horror and shock sometimes.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister the culpability your Government appears to be making in this whole business is that you were a little bit naive about AWB. That’s the only…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m not going to… look the Commission has not made a finding yet.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you know, I’ll come to mine in a minute, but I mean let’s make it clear, the Commission has said that it will make findings of fact in relation to the knowledge of the Commonwealth, it’s said that. It has said it’s got the power to do that. Now I’m not going to pre-empt what Mr Cole says. But what I am saying to you in relation to the Government is that the Government was plainly deceived by AWB – I think DFAT was systematically deceived. Now what some people are implying, including probably some people in this room, well they shouldn’t have been, no matter what the systematic behaviour of AWB was, they shouldn’t have been, well that depends on the circumstances, and then you have to look at a whole lot of conduct over a period of time and you’ve got to make a judgement about it. And I have tried, you know informed by hindsight, which is always an unreasonable thing, I’ve endeavoured to do that and… I mean I have spent a lot of time let me tell you with senior people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the past few months reconstructing all of this and saying well you know what did you do with this? Why did you do it? I’ve spent hours and hours, and I’ve done it with my own advisers. Anybody thinks I’ve just picked up a DFAT brief and read it, forget it, I haven’t done anything of the kind. I’ve devoted an enormous amount of time to this, to try and understand it, now… and that’s helped form the conclusions that I’m giving to you today.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister if the Mason opinion (inaudible) doing it, shouldn’t your advisers have brought it straight to your attention on the 26th of October?

PRIME MINISTER:

Which?

JOURNALIST:

The Mason opinion as remained in the…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I was aware… except that it had been overtaken. I mean you’ve got to understand that the…I mean the Mason opinion is not… it’s significant in the sense that a person of that intelligence and obvious high esteem writes the opinion. But what had happened was that it arrived at the same time as we got the final Volcker report and within a couple of days I’d announced we were going to have an inquiry, and then a week or so after that the Attorney-General announced the appointment of Mr Cole. So I mean obviously it’s…all of that was subsumed in the establishment of the Cole Inquiry because no legal opinion, once you’ve established an inquiry, however eminent that the person giving the opinion might be, no legal opinion is going to carry a greater weight than the deliberations and the findings of the inquiry because crucially the inquiry had the power to compel the production of documents.

JOURNALIST:

Did Alexander Downer give a speech to you Mr Howard….

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon? Sorry.

JOURNALIST:

Did Alexander Downer, who was obviously concerned about AWB’s crisis, and wrote that on a (inaudible), did he not at any stage talk to you, or say in passing that (inaudible) these doubts raised?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Michelle we had, we obviously had a very intensive discussion about the 9th, 10th of February, in the wake of the Volcker.

JOURNALIST:

But in 2004 I mean.

PRIME MINISTER:

2004 and… I don’t recall, and it’s not an expression I use frequently, but I don’t recall that particular discussion.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister at the very least it seems that the last three days, four days of evidence, it’s highlighted a series of flaws in the process of accountability. Ministers who say they can’t recall seeing documents and no record of what documents were given to the Minister on what date, by whom, no record at all and I believe you’ve taken that question essentially on notice from the Commission today yourself. Shouldn’t there at the very least be a process whereby we could have a record of what is given to a Minister, what cable, what document, so we don’t then become reliant on their memory?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you have to understand the volume of paper you’re dealing with. And you have to understand you know what do you give priority to, the employment of armies of clerks to record things or the employment of people who exercise commonsense? I mean there’s a balance. I mean I’m not saying you shouldn’t have proper record keeping and I must say I find, generally speaking, the record keeping performance of my department and my office to be of a high order. Anybody can always improve systems. But in the end the crucial thing is that you’ve got to invest in somebody a professional discretion as to what is shown, or not shown. I mean the argument here is not about whether the record was kept of something being shown, but as to whether it was or wasn’t shown. And I think you know the point you make, whilst you know I don’t argue with it, it’s subsidiary to the fact that in any minister or prime minister’s office you’ve got to have people who make judgements. But can I just also remind you that that assumes that the material they were meant to have provided to me amounted to what people are alleging it amounted to, according to the knowledge and the circumstances of the time. I have to keep pushing you back to that. You have to look at the conduct of people according to the knowledge and the circumstances of the time, not the knowledge and circumstances of 2006.

JOURNALIST:

It’s really subsidiary, it’s actually (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no.

JOURNALIST:

The issue is whether things were seen or not seen.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no.

JOURNALIST:

If there was a system of (inaudible) and record keeping, it could be absolutely certain about what we’ve seen and not seen and there’d be no question over it. Isn’t it the case?

PRIME MINISTER:

But Karen it isn’t central because what I’m trying to say to you, and I obviously haven’t done it very well, what I’m trying to say to you is that the judgements made about the relative importance at the time of those particular documents, by people other than me, were not in my view, according to what they knew then and instructed by then current knowledge, they were not unreasonable. And I’m not asserting with the benefit of hindsight that I would have treated the information if I had seen it any differently, that’s the point I’m trying to make to you, that’s why, while the record keeping thing is important, it’s the reaction to the substance of the information which is even more important.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister should other nations now conduct their own inquiries and rorting by their companies of the Oil-for-Food programme?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is entirely a matter for them. I’m not going to give advice, I’ve got plenty on my plate dealing with Australian domestic issues. That’s entirely a matter for them.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister on one of those issues, asylum issues, have you decided to change the way those arriving on the mainland are processed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes we have. The Immigration Minister has released a statement and with effect from today, and this will take effect when the legislation is brought in, it will operate as from today, that the new measures will mean that all unauthorised boat arrivals will be transferred to offshore centres for assessment of their claims. And this will effectively eliminate the distinction between unauthorised boat arrivals at an excised offshore place and those who reach the mainland. They will apply to all unauthorised arrivals, regardless of nationality. I should stress that claims for refugee status will continue to be assessed in accordance with our international obligations. People who are found to be refugees will remain offshore until resettlement in a third country is arranged. And in that description Australia, of course, is a third country because the offshore processing will in most cases not occur in Australian territory. All of this will be consistent with our international obligations. And I should say also that we’re going to increase our capacity to patrol our northern waters to locate any unauthorised arrivals and the Customs and Defence Ministers will be having something further to say on this soon.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister what would you (inaudible) review that move as a concession to Jakarta in the wake of their decision to grant the Papuans asylum status here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we think it is a good policy because it will bring the treatment of unauthorised boat arrivals on to, how shall I put it, an even plain in all circumstances. It’s not done as a concession to Indonesia. Having said that, the bilateral relationship as you all know between Indonesia and Australia, particularly in relation to matters concerning unauthorised arrivals, but not only in relation to that, is very important.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister did you give any advice, or your Government give any advice to Jakarta in advance of this announcement?

PRIME MINISTER:

In accordance with normal practice there were discussions with not only, well information conveyed not only to Indonesia but also to Nauru.

JOURNALIST:

So is it the case that Jakarta technically did not on this…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t know….

JOURNALIST:

But it is designed to help repair relations with…

PRIME MINISTER:

It is designed to regularise our policy in this area. Clearly if … if it makes a contribution to the bilateral relationship, that is a very good thing.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister the issue of the national interest, in whether there should be a formal national interest consideration given as part of the application process of asylum. What have you done about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Karen that was discussed, I think it’s unlikely that that will be there. I mean I think I should tell you that when we had this discussion, there is a general belief – and it’s one that I hold very strongly – that we can’t really have a situation where we walk away from the general obligations we have in relation to assessing refugee capacity, and we’re certainly not going to embrace the situation where we in effect check with Indonesia or anybody else. I think part of the contribution that can be made by Indonesia to improving the bilateral relationship is to put greater emphasis on the local autonomy arrangements in relation to Papua, I think that would help enormously. But Indonesia has come a very long way and we have to apply a test of reasonableness to Indonesia as well. You’ve got to compare governance in Indonesia now with what it was 10 years ago, and it’s come an enormous distance. But clearly there will continue to be debate about human-rights issues in Papua, and I understand that, and we’re trying to balance these things and balance them very carefully.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to President Yudhoyono?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I haven’t. I mean that’s not to say I won’t speak to him but at some point I probably will. But I think I indicated, or Mr Downer indicated last week, that when you’ve got a difficulty in a relationship what you’ve got to do is work at it in a systematic and a diplomatic fashion, and of course these Foreign Ministers are far suaver and better at handling these things than we rough and ready heads of government.

JOURNALIST:

Have you in effect excised the whole mainland?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it is getting a long news conference when I get questions like that.

JOURNALIST:

Have you thought to speak to the President? You seemed to be on the brink for about a week…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what has happened, and Michelle there’s been a lot of sort of discussion and considering and we sort of agreed on a bit of, you know, a process, well step by step I think what might happen is you know Downer and Wirajuda, Mr Downer and Mr Wirajuda speak and it may well be that a senior person, probably not a Minister, goes to Jakarta and we have some further discussions. And I mean if we are to improve the bilateral relationship or further strengthen it – let me put it that way – there have to be contributions from both sides.

JOURNALIST:

So when are you going?

PRIME MINISTER:

Me, I don’t have any current plans to go, but I use the word current and so therefore if I end up going in a few months time you will understand that I haven’t sort of gone back on something I’ve said. Can we give Paul a go, we’ll come back to you Karen.

JOURNALIST:

Would you now concede the decision taken in relation to the 42 Papuans several weeks ago did involve a miscalculation on the part of your Government, in terms of Jakarta’s attitude?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, we thought that Jakarta would react adversely to the decision.

JOURNALIST:

Was the reaction was much stronger than what you anticipated?

PRIME MINISTER:

A bit stronger, yes, a bit stronger, yes, I’d agree with that. However we knew there would be an adverse reaction but we felt on the merits we have no proper alternative and I say that to people who suggest that we’re doing things to placate Indonesia. I mean I want Australia and Indonesia to be very close and we’ll go half way, but there has to be an understanding on Indonesia’s part. And I drew the analogy between the my appealing to Australians who were angry about Schapelle Corby to respect the Indonesia justice system, and I hope that Indonesians who are angry about our decision on the Papuans will respect our system. And our system means that we have to meet our obligations under the refugee convention and in the discussion we had the other day there was a general acceptance that we couldn’t walk away from those obligations and that will continue to inform the way we behave.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do these new border protection arrangements also affect people who come by plane and seek asylum?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Why not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they won’t because of a whole number of practical reasons.

JOURNALIST:

But aren’t they making asylum claims just like people who come by boat?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but the practical circumstances are different. Now does that mean everybody has stopped, run out of questions?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are you pleased that the British Government is persisting with its efforts to stop David Hicks from getting British citizenship?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to express a view on that, that’s a matter for another government, it’s not for me to express that view…express a view either way in relation to that, certainly not.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you probably haven’t had time to see the tax report?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have.

JOURNALIST:

Do you believe it provides an argument for a reduction in the top rate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it provides a lot of valuable information. I think it shows that the top rate in this country is not very different from the OECD average. I think it shows in relative terms Australia is a low taxed country. I think it shows that middle Australian families are very well treated by the tax system and when I speak of the tax system I include the Family Tax Benefits system, which in integral to our whole tax system. And I take the opportunity again of saying we’re not going to muck around with the Family Tax Benefits system and anybody who thinks that tax reform includes taking an axe to that and channelling all of that money on an individual basis into tax cuts, they’re wrong, we’re not going to do that. I think the Family Tax Benefits system is one of the great achievements of this Government. It is delivered on a promise I made when I became leader of the opposition again in January 1995 and that is that I wanted a tax system that gave a greater emphasis to people who carried the obligation of… brought children in to the world, and we then had a tax system that was heavily biased against Australian families. So we’re not going to play around with that. As to what might be in the Budget, well I think you just have to watch this space.

JOURNALIST:

Sorry Mr Howard, but could you just explain the difference between people who come by plane and people who come by boat and why they would be treated differently under Australian laws?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they come in, from the practical point of view they come in different circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) jump on a plane and seek to make claim for asylum.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there, I mean it is possible in relation to people who come by plane to have a little bit more knowledge in advance of whose coming. I mean you don’t have quite the number of planes landing in the middle of the country, in deserted parts of Australia, as you have boats arriving. I mean…

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s one of the reasons and you do have you know manifests and all that sort of thing. No more questions? Well I hope you all have a very, very…. I hope you have a very happy Easter, all of you and we look forward to seeing you all, just after Easter. See you later.

[ends]

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