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Howard Farewells HMAS Kanimbla

January 23, 2003

HMAS Kanimbla As criticism mounts and opinion polls indicate Australians are not happy with the decision to deploy more troops to the Persian Gulf ahead of United Nations deliberations on Iraq, the Prime Minister, John Howard, has farewelled HMAS Kanimbla at Garden Island in Sydney.

In his speech, Howard told the troops: "You're entitled to know from me why it is that the Government has asked you to undertake this task. You go to the Persian Gulf as part of the existing multinational interception force but it may be, given circumstances that are now unfolding in relation to Iraq and that country's response to certain UN resolutions, it may be that this vessel and the deployment here are involved in wider operations. We hope that is unnecessary. We will work as a nation and as a people to render that unnecessary if at all possible."

Describing the deployment as "pre-positioning", Howard later commented on the speech given by the Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, in which Crean said he did not agree with the troops going at this stage. Howard said: "I don't think it's fair on our military forces if we think it's possible that they could be involved in conflict to deny them the opportunity of pre-positioning, of acclimatisation, of training, and getting ready. It seems to me to be asking them to fight potentially with one hand tied behind their back and I don't think that's fair."


This is the text of the address by the Prime Minister, John Howard, to Australian troops aboard HMAS Kanimbla, at Garden Island, Sydney.

The Governor-General, the Chief of the Defence Force, the Defence Minister, Chief of the Navy, ladies and gentlemen and, very particularly and very directly, the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are gathered here on this vessel as it is about to depart for the Persian Gulf and, also very particularly their family members and other loved ones.

This is an important day for you. It's an important day for the Australian Defence Force and as the head of the elected Government you, above all other Australians, are entitled to know from me a number of things. You're entitled to know from me why it is that the Government has asked you to undertake this task. You go to the Persian Gulf as part of the existing multinational interception force but it may be, given circumstances that are now unfolding in relation to Iraq and that country's response to certain UN resolutions, it may be that this vessel and the deployment here are involved in wider operations. We hope that is unnecessary. We will work as a nation and as a people to render that unnecessary if at all possible.

No person in their own mind embraces military conflict without trying to the maximum extent possible to avoid it and to seek another alternative. We would all like to live in a world in which there were no challenges and no problems and that you could simply by turning your back on a challenge of a rogue state possessing weapons of mass destruction hope it would go away. But the world has never been quite as simple as that and it's not as simple as that now.

I believe that it is right for the international community to try and disarm Iraq. I believe that if the international community baulked at that task, if it walks away from it, if it gives up because it is too hard, Iraq will not oblige by giving up her weapons of mass destruction. She will be emboldened not only to retain them but to also expand them. And the example of that successful defiance will be copied by other countries and we will increasingly live in a world where a growing number of rogue states possess weapons that could do enormous damage not only to their neighbours but to the broader community. And that, in the essence, is the challenge that the international community faces and over the weeks ahead we'll debate and resolve as an international community how best it can respond to that challenge.

We are working very closely with our friends and allies through the United Nations to achieve an outcome through those councils. But you cannot unrelate or disconnect the forward deployment or forward positioning of military forces with a diplomatic effort because as the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said last weekend he did not believe the weapons inspectors would be in Iraq had it not been for the military deployment undertaken by the United States.

Can I say very directly to the men and women who are carrying the hopes and the prayers and the good wishes of all Australians of all complexions, of all political persuasions and of all the variety of views you inevitably have in a great democracy on important political issues, can I say to you, you go with the united good wishes and prayers of all Australians. I can promise you, on behalf of the Government, that we will do everything we can not only to keep you out of harms way, consistent with the (inaudible) I've outlined, but also to bring about a peaceful resolution of this very difficult issue. Can I say to your families who are left behind who will provide you, through the defence community, with all of the support and the love and affection that you are entitled to have in these difficult times.

Finally, can I say on behalf of all Australians, I know, all Australians, how immensely proud we are of the courage, the tradition, the professionalism, the commitment and, very importantly, the mateship of the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces, good luck to you all, we wish you a safe return home. Thank you.


This is the transcript of the doorstop interview given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, following the farewell to HMAS Kanimbla at Garden Island, Sydney.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think Simon Crean should have said what he said?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, that is a matter for him, he's the Opposition Leader and in a democracy he decides what he says, I decide what I say and what I said was a heartfelt explanation to the men and women as to why the Government is pre-positioning them. I believe that this issue can still be resolved without military force. I believe very strongly that through pre-positioning of forces we are adding to the likelihood of it being resolved peacefully. Remember the Secretary-General of the United Nations said at the weekend, the head of the very body that is charged with trying to resolve this peacefully, that he doubts whether the weapons inspectors would have been in Iraq had it not been for the American military build up. History has told us that you can reinforce diplomatic initiatives through military pre-positioning and military deployment.

JOURNALIST:

Simon Crean says you've made Australian troops a much bigger target by sending them in before the UN comes back. What's your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't agree with that. The proposition that you don't allow troops to get ready for possible conflict but suddenly expect them to be ready if you finally decide you're going to send them without adequate preparation is absurd. I don't think it's fair on our military forces if we think it's possible that they could be involved in conflict to deny them the opportunity of pre-positioning, of acclimatisation, of training, and getting ready. It seems to me to be asking them to fight potentially with one hand tied behind their back and I don't think that's fair.

JOURNALIST:

What message do you think this sends to the world today?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what Australia has said is that we are not so unrealistic as to imagine that if you turn your back on problem countries such as Iraq the problem will go away. Let's face it, if the world crumbles and the international community does nothing about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction does anybody imagine that they're going to unilaterally and voluntarily get rid of them? Does anybody imagine that they will do other than to retain them and add to them? Does anybody imagine that other countries won't emulate Iraq? Of course they will. We're living in a different world from what we were living in thirty years ago. There's no comparison between today's circumstances and Vietnam. The attempts of some people to draw a parallel between this and Vietnam is historically flawed and politically motivated. The two issues bear no resemblance at all. They are entirely different situations against different sets of circumstances. What you have here is a new environment of a number of rogue states having weapons of mass destruction. If we do nothing about it those states will retain them and other states will think that if they can do why can't we, and in a few years time we'll have a much greater problem.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] debate over the next couple of months in Parliament. Do you think that kind of undermines what the people here on the boat are setting out to do today [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I can only do what I do and I can only be held accountable, which I accept that I will, for my actions and my decisions. Nothing that I have done to date, nothing I will do in the future will undermine public support for our armed forces. What other people do is for them to do and for them to answer for. I'm not going to become a commentator on the attitudes of other people.

JOURNALIST:

But the polls are showing that Australians don't support today's action.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's too early to make final judgements about the state of public opinion but in any event when you are a Prime Minister you try and do what you believe is right. You don't just sit there each morning and look at the latest opinion poll. You make up your mind what you believe to be in the longer term interests of this country, you make decisions accordingly, and then you set out to explain to the Australian people the reasons for those decisions. In the end, in a democracy we are all accountable and the Australian people in the fullness of time will make judgements on all of these matters. Their attitudes and their opinions will probably change. But my responsibility is not to respond to the polls, my responsibility is to do what I think is right in the long term interests of this country. I believe that what we have done is right, I believe it is in the long term interests of Australia, and that is the sole reason why I'm doing it.

JOURNALIST:

Are you jumping the gun given that the UN [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I'm not jumping the gun. I mean let me refer you back to what the Secretary-General of the UN said. Last weekend Kofi Annan said the inspectors would not now be in Iraq had it not been for the American military build up. Well how against that kind of statement from that kind of person can it credibly be said by anybody in Australia that we are jumping the gun. I mean if you don't believe the Secretary-General of the very body who you say should control the whole thing who do you believe?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what conversations have you had with President Bush about today's deployment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he rang me yesterday morning to have a general discussion, not about today's deployment. I mean today's deployment is our decision. I informed him yesterday that we would be making this announcement within....about half and hour after I had the telephone conversation that Senator Hill's press statement went out. So the two things were quite coincidental. But we talked generally about the situation in Iraq. He still wants a peaceful resolution. I told him that Australia believed that the UN processes should be used to the maximum extent feasible. I put that quite strongly to him. I believe that...he certainly took that on board and he certainly understands our very strong position on that. I indicated to him that I thought the weapons inspectors should be given a reasonable amount of time but not unlimited time, and reasonable having regard to Iraq's track record of non-compliance. I don't believe anything is going to happen between now and the 27th of January, I certainly don't believe anything is going to happen immediately around the 27th of January. I think the Americans will try very hard with the weapons inspection process. What we've all got to remember in all of this is that the United Nations would not be in the game now had it not been for the Americans. People keep criticising the Americans for ignoring the United Nations. The United Nations was doing nothing about this issue until reactivated by the Americans when President Bush went to the General Assembly on the 12th of September. Until then the United Nations was out of the game and it's only through American activation that the United Nations has come back into it. So I think people have got to be very careful before they condemn the behaviour of the Americans. But he still hopes for a peaceful solution. He is obviously not willing to see Iraq continue to treat the world community with contempt which it has for the last 12 years. So I think we will just see how things unravel over the days ahead. The other point I should mention out of our discussion is he expressed a lot of gratitude to the initiative that Australia has taken in relation to North Korea sending that diplomatic mission there. The mission has now gone to Washington and briefed the State Department and it represented the highest level contact earlier in time of any western country.

JOURNALIST:

Did he ask for a greater defence commitment?

PRIME MINISTER:

No he didn't, he didn't. Of course he didn't. No he didn't ask for any greater pre-positioning and the American government has not made a decision. They're ready. Obviously they're getting ready, everybody knows that. But they would still like to see the thing resolved and this idea that people are automatically warmongers because they accept the responsibility of world leadership that he has accepted is really quite false.

JOURNALIST:

Will there be any cause for more forward deployments of troops to the Gulf region?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I indicated on the 10th of January the range of likely Australian involvement. If there were military action then I also indicated that from time to time pre-positioning would take place. Consistent with that statement then the pre-positioning will occur.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, are you encouraging other countries now to follow the Australian lead?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not actively ringing people up no. We've taken a decision on our assessment of the circumstances and I'm not on the phone ringing other countries up. I've had a number of discussions with other leaders. I think the situation in regard to the United Nations and in regard to the contributions of other countries is really quite fluid. I think it's foolish for people to say it's definitely going to go this way or the other. The important thing is that we have put ourselves in a position to make a contribution as the circumstances unfold. It would be manifestly unfair to our defence personnel not to pre-position them, not to allow them to get ready, but then suddenly let's imagine you get a United Nations resolution and we want to be part of it and you then say we'll go without preparation, that's just not fair and I note that Michael O'Connor of the Australian Defence Association and a number of other people who have strategic military experience have made that same observation.

Thank you.

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