Transcript Of The Prime Minister The Hon John Howard MP
Press Conference, Phillip Street, Sydney
Subject: Cole Commission; asylum seekers; David Hicks; tax.
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?
I beg your pardon?
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.
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.
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
Not if there was an absence of hard evidence, no.
Do you think there was an absence of hard evidence?
So you don’t think there is any failing on the part of anyone in the Government in relation to this?
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.
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] ?
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.
On October the 31st last year you described AWB and their executives as (Inaudible)
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
Mr Downer said that DFAT had done a good job, [Inaudible] professional. Are you prepared to say your ministers have done
a good job?
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.
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?
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.
Prime Minister your statement says that there were four cables that you believe your staff…
…I beg your pardon…
…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)…
..Why didn’t they show you those?
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
You said this morning that you were ready to believe the worst of Saddam’s regime...
…(Inaudible) and ready to believe the best of AWB.
…No, I didn’t say that. What I said, I did not say that...
My question is…
…I know what your question is, I am not going to stop you asking the question Karen but please don’t misrepresent what I
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].
Well I think the judgements that were made at the time, using a test of reasonableness, are ones that can be defended.
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?
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.
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?
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?
Would you expect them to make a finding on that?
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.
Rule on this, you’re the President of the gallery.
Paul would you yield to the lady?
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
(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…
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
On the process (inaudible) can I just ask this question again, that if you accept there was a legal (inaudible)…?
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.
Are you concerned about the performance of your ministers in the discharge of that obligation?
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.
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?
Well Tim, firstly I don’t admit that he said it.
Did you have a view on it?
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.
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)?
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.
I am just trying to find what you mean by game over.
No look, it’s a very well understood expression.
(inaudible) cross examination (inaudible) the fact that DFAT was relying on AWB for reassurance about (inaudible)?
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.
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?
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.
So there’s no (inaudible) if they had been seen by you or your Ministers? There wouldn’t have been any different action?
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.
Yes Mr Farr.
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?
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.
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…
Well I’m not going to… look the Commission has not made a finding yet.
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.
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?
The Mason opinion as remained in the…
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.
Did Alexander Downer give a speech to you Mr Howard….
I beg your pardon? Sorry.
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?
Well Michelle we had, we obviously had a very intensive discussion about the 9th, 10th of February, in the wake of the
But in 2004 I mean.
2004 and… I don’t recall, and it’s not an expression I use frequently, but I don’t recall that particular discussion.
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
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.
It’s really subsidiary, it’s actually (inaudible)
The issue is whether things were seen or not seen.
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?
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.
Prime Minister should other nations now conduct their own inquiries and rorting by their companies of the Oil-for-Food
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.
Prime Minister on one of those issues, asylum issues, have you decided to change the way those arriving on the mainland
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.
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?
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.
Prime Minister did you give any advice, or your Government give any advice to Jakarta in advance of this announcement?
In accordance with normal practice there were discussions with not only, well information conveyed not only to Indonesia
but also to Nauru.
So is it the case that Jakarta technically did not on this…
No, I don’t know….
But it is designed to help repair relations with…
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.
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?
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
Have you spoken to President Yudhoyono?
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.
Have you in effect excised the whole mainland?
No, it is getting a long news conference when I get questions like that.
Have you thought to speak to the President? You seemed to be on the brink for about a week…
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.
So when are you going?
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.
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?
Paul, we thought that Jakarta would react adversely to the decision.
Was the reaction was much stronger than what you anticipated?
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.
Mr Howard, do these new border protection arrangements also affect people who come by plane and seek asylum?
Well they won’t because of a whole number of practical reasons.
But aren’t they making asylum claims just like people who come by boat?
Yes but the practical circumstances are different. Now does that mean everybody has stopped, run out of questions?
Prime Minister are you pleased that the British Government is persisting with its efforts to stop David Hicks from
getting British citizenship?
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.
Mr Howard, you probably haven’t had time to see the tax report?
Do you believe it provides an argument for a reduction in the top rate?
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.
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?
Well they come in, from the practical point of view they come in different circumstances.
(inaudible) jump on a plane and seek to make claim for asylum.
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…
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.