John Howard’s New York Press Conference

This is the transcript of the press conference given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at the Pierre Hotel, New York.

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought I’d say a couple of things about my meeting with the Chairman of the Interim Council in Afghanistan – Mr Karzai. We had a good meeting. We discussed the challenges that faced Afghanistan. He expressed his thanks for the $40 million of government assistance. He said that Afghanistan continued to need a lot of assistance in a lot of areas, in particular many technical areas and we discussed some of them and arising out of that I’ve offered government technical advice via the Treasury and the Reserve Bank, particularly the latter, to help Afghanistan in relation to strengthening and rebuilding her central banking system. Australia has quite a lot of expertise in that area and he was very pleased to accept that offer.

We then discussed the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. I explained to him the process that was undertaken. I reassured him that anybody judged to be a refugee and as a consequence given residence in Australia was treated equally with any other person, became entitled to certain benefits in accordance with the law. He fully understood that I pointed out that we had a policy of mandatory detention in relation to those people awaiting assessment and in relation to people who are judged not to be genuine refugees.

I indicated to him that Australia would be willing to provide resettlement assistance given the state of the economy in Afghanistan for any Afghani citizens who’d come to Australia and who’d been judged not to be refugees to assist their resettlement in Afghanistan if they were to return. We agreed arising out of our discussion that he would send a delegation to Australia to discuss this matter with us, with the government. Obviously that delegation will have an opportunity of discussing the issue with people from Afghanistan in Australia and I would imagine that, subject to the permission of the government of Nauru and PNG, that delegation might want to visit both of those countries as well. And the intention is, and certainly the indication I had from one of his ministers, is that this delegation would visit Australia in the very near future.

I also raised with him the involvement of Afghanistan in the people smuggling summit which is to take place in Bali in February and he’s agreed that his Foreign Minister will attend that meeting and participate and I welcome that very warmly because it’s important that they be involved because Afghanistan is one of the source countries of refugees and one of the countries grappling with a great number of problems.

I also raised my concern about the apparent renewal of the opium trade in Afghanistan. I pointed out that most of the heroin and other drugs that came to Australia came from Burma, from Myanmar or sometimes from Afghanistan. And I expressed my very deep concern about that. He assured me that they were going to undertake all the steps they could in order to stamp it out. I indicated that it was something that was of very considerable concern to the Australian government.

I thought it was a good meeting and I regard the agreement we reached about the delegation coming. My indication to him of our willingness to provide resettlement assistance is a very positive development. I don’t want to read too much into it at this stage but I think engaging the two governments on the issue is a very welcome development. I indicated to him that our policy, I explained the basis of our policy and indicated that it would continue and I thought the whole approach he took was constructive. He of course welcomed the additional assistance I offered in relation to the central bank, and he also of course noted what I’d offered in relation to the resettlement assistance. That’s all I want to say on that issue and I’d be very happy to answer any of your questions.

JOURNALIST:

Can you put a figure on that resettlement assistance?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we haven’t….I didn’t put a figure on it to him and I’m at this stage don’t propose to put a figure on it but it would be sensible. It would be useful for people who were going back.

JOURNALIST:

Have you got a rough estimate of how many people might be involved?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s voluntary Michelle.

JOURNALIST:

Well, estimated to be involved just on percentages….

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you’re looking probably at 1100.

JOURNALIST:

How would it work, Mr Howard… [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if people agreed….I mean they want to be satisfied. I mean the comment was made to me by a number of the ministers in the course of the meeting that they want to be satisfied that all of the people who claim to be Afghanis are in fact Afghanis. Now that’s fair enough. And I made the point to them that because of that there is a screening process and they fully understood that.

JOURNALIST:

So is it designed to cover processing costs…..?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is designed to provide resettlement assistance and obviously helps the individual and would help the Afghani economy as well.

JOURNALIST:

So there’s an actual incentive for these people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it would provide them with resettlement assistance.

JOURNALIST:

How’s it…..?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends on the quantum, Alison. I’m not committing myself to an amount at this time but it’s not going to be nominal but it’s also going to be sensible.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] ..first time Australia has provided or offered such assistance?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. We offered them in relation to the Kosovars. It’s not something without precedent. But I do think, can I say again, I think the discussion was very positive and we were engaged in trying to find a solution to difficult problem and I think that is important.

JOURNALIST:

It would go to the individual rather than….?

PRIME MINISTER:

It would go to the individual, it would go to the individuals Michelle. Yes, we are, you know, we believe in providing help to individuals.

JOURNALIST:

Did Mr Karzai ask you about ….

PRIME MINISTER:

No. It didn’t come up.

JOURNALIST:

Did Mr Karzai raise with you [inaudible] the issue of Asylum seekers….[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

He certainly didn’t ask that more come to Australia, he didn’t. My recollection, and you know, sometimes these things sort of just emerge out of the ambience of the meeting, but my recollection is that I referred to his comments, purported comments, and I just talked about the issue.

JOURNALIST:

So he didn’t ask you for a change of policy [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

He didn’t ask me for a change in policy, no.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard would you consider Afghanis [inaudible] Taliban and now are not qualified for refugee status because of the change in government.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t presume to make generic declarations about the refugee status or otherwise of a group of people. I don’t think that’s right. You have a proper screening process and it’s got to be judged on a person by person basis. All we have said which makes a great deal of sense is that now that the Taliban is no longer there the situation has self-evidently changed and that could well effect the assessment of the claims of individuals. But I’m not going to say that this or that group is now no longer entitled to refugee status. That is a matter for the processes of determination.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] At lunch today you said that President Bush’s comments about the threat, potential threat from North Korea, Iran and Iraq is understandable and should be supported. Is there any [inaudible] especially about support likely coming from Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] military assistance?

PRIME MINISTER:

No no but I also then went on to say that if we were asked to help the Americans in relation to any enterprise other than Afghanistan we would look at that as a separate case. I’m not saying in advance we will respond positively to every request we get.

JOURNALIST:

Well it seems [inaudible] that that particular [inaudible] is in relation to terrorist organisations Al Qaeda [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m sorry I don’t understand what you’re getting at.

JOURNALIST:

Well In the past when you talked about and others have talked about [inaudible] post-Afganistan chasing terrorists. There’s normally been terrorists associated with Al Qaeda [inaudible]. It’s not normally said [inaudible] nation states like North Korea or Iraq.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you’re trying to, you’re generating, there’s a distinction without a difference.

Well, yes the terrorists have got to be in a nation state they don’t swim around in the atmosphere. I mean, they’re in a nation state.

JOURNALIST:

I understand that.

PRIME MINISTER:

And if you want to take action against a terrorist where he or she is located.

JOURNALIST:

I understand that but I understood that President Bush’s comments were in relation to nation states themselves. North Korea for example, no-one’s alleged that they are hiding Al Qaeda terrorists.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think your fetching too much into that.

JOURNALIST:

Can you give us any reasons as to why Mr Murdoch cancelled the meeting with you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No and I haven’t. Given any reasons? Well look I don’t have anything to add to what’s been said. If he doesn’t want to have the meeting that’s fine by me.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] discuss cross media ownership?

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn’t have anything on the agenda. Others put that issue on the agenda.

JOURNALIST:

Were you disappointed at that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Why would I be?

JOURNALIST:

Well he said….. and you did invite him? And it was listed on your programme.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re not having a meeting. I don’t have anything more to say.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]…Labor’s position on foreign ownership?

PRIME MINISTER:

Have they got one?

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] … Lindsay Tanner is reported….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’ll see.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you have more reflections about your tour of ground zero?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the only reason I didn’t say anything more I…. don’t really hold lengthy press conferences… No it was very traumatic, it was a very sad place. I thought the messages were heartbreaking. I was quite affected by reading all those messages. They’re just really heart-rending.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) Mayor Bloomberg.

PRIME MINISTER:

He said New York’s best days are ahead of it. That’s what he had to say and he was surrounded by, yeah he’s got the open plan and he’s practising what he preaches about that. We, I handed over the condolence book to them and I wish him well. He’s pretty optimistic. He’s got a get up and go attitude. We, he’s working very hard to get both the Democratic Party and the Republicans to have their conventions prior to the next Presidential election held in New York. He said there’s a fair amount of competition but he’s pretty optimistic. There’s certainly a great sense in this city to whoever you talk to that despite the terrible trauma of the 11th of September that they’re determined to come back. They really are. It’s got a lot of spirit.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] sense of the workers you spoke to?

PRIME MINISTER:

I asked them about how long they’d been there. I mean the person, the man in charge arrived there on the, late on the morning of the 11th of September and he’s been working there ever since and he’s a pretty admirable person. I asked them about the nature of the work and they told me they were still recovering bodies. Some recently as a few days ago.

JOURNALIST:

You spoke today about Australia’s assistance in rebuilding East Timor. Now it seems we are offering, to a degree, assistance to helping rebuild Afghanistan as well. Does that signal any sort of shift in foreign policy and have Australian governments been involved in nation building in the past?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’ve had a commitment as a government to helping East Timor for quite some time. So anything we do in relation to East Timor is a continuation of a previous extremely honorable policy. I see Australia as playing a very magnanimous, generous part in helping countries that need help. I mean, within our resources, we are not a big country population-wise. Australia has always been willing to be a very good international citizen and the criticism that I’ve had to make of the United Nations process has been a criticism is not related to the role of the United Nations in providing genuine humanitarian help and its agencies that do that with the proper role, legitimately carried out of the United Nations helping countries achieve their independence. I mean I’ve had criticisms of what I regard as the sort of unnecessary intrusion of United Nations committees in fairly unproductive exercises. The United Nations focuses on its core responsibilities. It’s a very impressive organisation and it did that in East Timor. East Timor is almost a copybook example of how the process should work. You had a willing country in Australia, you had a speedily given and very wide mandate from the Security Council and it’s worked very well in relation to Afghanistan. But, I’m very proud of the role that Australia’s played in these areas. Very proud.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible]… flavour of the messages that affected you?

PRIME MINISTER:

A whole lot of them. I mean there are a couple of them, but I naturally had a look at the Australian one and saw Andrew Knox…and, but I thought some American ones, a photograph of a policeman that said “daddy you were very brave” written on it. Very heartrending.

JOURNALIST:

You just saw one Australian one.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I saw a lot of Australians but, Michelle I don’t have a capacity to remember every single one I’ve seen. I mean it’s not the sort of thing you write, you make a note of.

JOURNALIST:

You mentioned at lunchtime that this was….decided sometime after September 11 [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I did have a sense of unfinished business but I’ve always placed great store whenever I’ve come to America either as Prime Minister or any other capacity. I’ve always placed great store on visiting New York, because New York is the financial capital of the world without any doubt and in a sense the position of New York and Washington as the financial and political capitals of the world, which is more emphatic now than it’s been in my lifetime.

JOURNALIST:

You spoke about how it’s changed the world , had a big impact [inaudible] Is it something that you think of frequently?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think a lot of people do. Of course you think of things like that frequently. It’s the single most foul deed in my experience of public life and it does effect people and I guess the way you wonder, I mean whenever you see a tall building. Well I do. Others may not but whenever I see a tall building you think about it, but that doesn’t mean to say that life doesn’t go on and I think the Mayor is right “New York’s best days are probably still ahead of it” and I think the city’s got tremendous recuperative capacity. Tremendous. I don’t think the traffic has got any better. I think that’s an insolvable problem.

Anything else?

JOURNALIST:

When you were standing at Ground Zero with the workers you could see, what was in the bottom of the pit? What could you see? Rubble or junk?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s what they call the bathtub. That sort of goes right down. But I didn’t see to the bottom because I couldn’t see either but that’s just, that’s apparently six floors down.

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