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Howard Heads To Jakarta For Aid Summit

The Prime Minister, John Howard, will attend an international conference in Jakarta aimed at coordinating the distribution of aid to tsunami-affected areas of South Asia.

Speaking at a press conference in Canberra, Howard said he would also meet with the Indonesian President Yudhoyono. It is expected that the two leaders will announce further aid measures.

  • Listen to John Howard Announce Day of Mourning for Tsunami Victims (84s)
  • Listen to US Secretary of State Colin Powell comment on the Tsunami (33s)

This is the transcript of the press conference held by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at Parliament House, Canberra.

John Howard, Prime MinisterGood morning ladies and gentleman. I thought I would say a couple of things shortly before leaving for Jakarta. As indicated yesterday the number of Australians confirmed dead remains at 12. There are grave concerns held for a further 72 and it’s not been possible at this stage to resolve 560 reports of Australians who’ve been in the affected areas. That does not necessarily mean that grave concerns are held for all of those but it does indicate that we’ve simply not been.. (interruption)

It’s not been possible at this stage to resolve reports of 560; that doesn’t mean that grave concerns are held for all of them. In some cases their absence was reported by people other than close relatives and friends. In most cases, however, the latter was the case. It will take some time before all of those people are, as it were, tracked down or not discovered and therefore the final number of Australians who’ve been affected remains unclear.

I’ll be attending a major international conference which brings together the leaders or foreign ministers of all of the ASEAN countries – China, Japan, Korea, Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the head of the World Bank, the head of the Asian Development Bank and the head of a number of the specialised agencies. It’s a very important conference. I hope the focus of the conference will include the importance of the coordination of the distribution of aid. It’s fair to say that the world has responded with remarkable generosity to what has occurred and many countries are to be complimented on what they have done. The important thing now is to make sure that there is the minimum of distributive gridlock and that the aid gets through as quickly as possible.

Whilst in Jakarta I’ll have another bilateral meeting with President Yudhoyono. I have spoken to him on the telephone twice since this disaster struck. I spoke to him the day after the disaster and I spoke to him again last Sunday night.

I think you will be aware of the extent and the speed and the effectiveness of the aid that Australia has already provided and continues to provide. I want to especially thank the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces, the men and women who comprised the medical teams that responded so quickly, and in that context, I would like to thank the State Governments and State Government departments for their marvellous cooperation. There has been a totally coordinated response across Australia and the close collaboration between the Commonwealth and the States has been a hallmark of the response. I’d also like to thank the men and women of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police. The police, along with their state colleagues, are doing incredibly important, but very distressing work in victim identification, especially in Thailand and the Foreign Minister had an opportunity yesterday of observing that.

The Foreign Minister will see me in Jakarta and I spoke this morning to the Defence Minister, who later this week will go to Indonesia to visit some of the Australian military personnel who are providing the assistance.

The other two matters that I wish to mention is that the Government will invite all Australians to mark Sunday the 16th of January in the way they choose as a national day of mourning and reflection for the victims of this terrible natural disaster. Many Australians will mark that by attending church services, others will choose to do it in different ways. I respect the fact that Sunday is not a day of religious observance for all faiths in this country and understandably people, for example of Islamic faith, would perhaps mark the occasion on Friday which is a normal day of prayers in the Muslim religion. It’s my intention as well as attending a Christian service that weekend to mark the occasion by a visit to a place of worship of other faiths, particularly having regard to the extraordinary number of people of the Islamic faith who’ve lost their lives in this terrible disaster and also our friends from Sri Lanka and India where other faiths predominate.

I’ll also be seeking from the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation the opportunity next Sunday evening to make a brief address to the nation on aspects of this disaster and Australia’s response to it. I conclude these introductory remarks by expressing my personal gratitude and admiration to all of the people of Australia for their incredible, spontaneous generosity. They have been truly impressive and all of the inherent decency of the Australian people has shone through on this occasion and I am just blown away by the great generosity of people and it shows what a fundamentally good heart the Australian nation has.

JOURNALIST:

To what extent is Australia’s military and aid contribution to Indonesia dependent upon the situation between the Indonesian military and separatists in Aceh?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s not dependent at all. The only issue that that issue might give rise to is an issue of security of our personnel. We’re not in any way attaching conditions to the aid we’re providing. We have a single mission and that is to provide assistance to get it through in the most practical way possible and to give you an illustration of the practicality of Australian assistance. I was told yesterday that the only water purifier in the affected area, in Aceh is the one provided by the Australian Defence Force and a water purification plant is a more effective way of delivering fresh water to people in this situation than bottled water. I’m not criticising those who are proving water incidentally, I’m simply making the point that when it comes to providing immediate practical on the ground assistance it’s very hard to go past Australians.

JOURNALIST:

What Australian Government aid or assistance, will you be discussing with the Indonesian President at this summit…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I’ll be discussing with him and with others the provisions of further assistance. We will provide further assistance – I’ve made that very clear. What that assistance will be and precisely where, and in what, form is something to be further discussed and decided. In a situation like this it’s important that you provide generous immediate pledges of financial help but you provide immediate effective, on the ground assistance, and then as the extent of the disaster and the type of response needed crystallises then you provide further assistance and we have done that and done that very effectively.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) have a greater role or a more permanent role for Australian Defence Forces helping victims of the tsunami crisis in the region and how do you see the role of the United Nations? How does that fit in with the various bilateral arrangements and talks that are underway now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the role of the Australian Defence Forces is to defend Australia and to be involved in military operations that elsewhere, which are appropriate to the security interests of this country, and to the peace of the world. From time to time because of their expertise, Australian Defence personnel are involved in disaster and emergency operations, but it’s not something you permanently commit people to do. You have a capacity to provide it as it’s needed. Now the second question was?

JOURNALIST:

In relation to the United Nations, how do you see their role in this and how does that…..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter really for the United Nations. I mean this is a situation where what works should be supported. I have only one interest and that is getting aid through to people as quickly as possible and whoever can do that should do it, and whoever else should support what others have been able to do. I don’t think this is a question of who should be running it, it’s a question of what works. I mean clearly everything that we have done to date we have done bilaterally with Indonesia and different countries and I imagine that that will continue to be predominately the way in which we deliver assistance because it’s worked. We are still a world of nation states and a disaster of this magnitude drives that fact home because it’s only nation states that have the assets at their disposal to provide assistance. That is not in any way to denigrate the wonderful work of, particularly of non-government organisations such as Care and World Vision and all of those other organisations that do absolutely wonderful work but the reality is that it’s a government that can provide helicopters, it’s a government that can provide a water purification plant, it’s a nation that can provide these assets.

JOURNALIST:

Is the Australian Government aid likely to exceed $500 million dollars?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to put figures on anything, as we have announcements to make we will make them.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are you considering freezing debt repayments from affected countries?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve read some reports about that. We will consider any proposal that is put forward. I do, however, have some reservation about that and that is there’s no guarantee that if you do it, what is forgiven or what is the subject of a moratorium will end up going in aid because the debts are not normally owed by people who need the assistance. They’re usually owed by other organisations and you have no guarantee if you provide a debt moratorium or debt forgiveness that that money ends up where it should, so that is a practical reservation I have. My overwhelming preference is for Australian aid to be targeted and for Australia to have a clear role in where it goes and how it goes because we have a responsibility to those who are providing the aid, be it through donations or be it through the use of taxpayer’s funds to make certain that it gets where it should.

JOURNALIST:

In terms of the security situation in Aceh, are you concerned however that hostilities do appear to be continuing in certain areas?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are mixed reports. Obviously anybody would be concerned if hostilities continued.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) the support of George Bush senior and Bill Clinton to help out and advising on the aid effort, who are you taking advice from?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m taking advice from people I normally take advice from inside the Government. We have a different system of Government and the Americans handle these things differently. I don’t think they handle them any better. Australia’s response has been second to none around the world as far as this crisis is concerned and with all due respect to our American and other friends, I don’t think we have any lessons to learn in terms of the speed and the effectiveness and the practicality of our responses.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister at the recent surplus upgrade you indicated that we’re enjoying unprecedented prosperity, is there an argument that instead of tax cuts more money should go to long term integrated aid to this region?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well this is not an occasion to give a dissertation on the balance of fiscal policy Mr Metherell. This is an occasion to make sure that Australia’s response will be generous, effective, practical in its application and expressive of the desires of the Australian people and I can ensure you that is exactly what we will do.

JOURNALIST:

The flow on from all of this has been an opportunity perhaps for the United States to normalise its relationship a little bit more with Indonesia, is that something….

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I’m not going to tell the United States how to conduct its relationship with Indonesia. The Americans are a very generous people and I think those who suggest otherwise are wrong and are gratuitous and don’t understand what that country has done in the past. My major responsibility is to help the people of our region, not only, but particularly, Indonesia because Indonesia is very close and has suffered so much and I want to see that Australia does what should be reasonably expected of it and I believe to date Australia has responded magnificently and I want to see that continue. That wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary generosity of the Australian public, the Australian public has been very warm hearted and I really am in awe of their speedy and effective generosity.

JOURNALIST:

What decisions do you hope to see come out of the summit on Thursday, out of your meeting with the Indonesian President?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the most important thing is an understanding broadly of who does what, so people don’t bump into each other, I think that is tremendously important.

Thank you.

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