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Howard Announces Cabinet Decision To Deploy Defence Forces In Gulf Region

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has announced that Australian forces in the Gulf region will be part of any US-led coalition to disarm Iraq.

Speaking at a press conference in Canberra, Howard said the decision “is legal” and “is directed towards the protection of the Australian national interest”.

Howard urged Australians not to take issue with Defence personnel. “Have your beef with the government, have your beef with me, do not have your beef with the men and women of the Australian Defence Force,” he said.

“Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and an aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons,” Howard said. “If Iraq does not have taken from it those chemical and biological weapons, other rogue states will think they can imitate Iraq and as more rogue states acquire chemical and biological weapons, so the danger of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists will multiply.”

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s press conference, at Parliament House, Canberra.

I’ve called this news conference to announce that the Government has authorised the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Cosgrove, to place the Australian forces already deployed in the Gulf region as part of any US-led coalition operation that may take place in the future directed in accordance with existing authority under United Nations resolutions to disarm Iraq. This decision was taken at a Cabinet meeting this morning following a further telephone discussion between myself and President Bush. He indicated that the final diplomatic attempts in New York to obtain strong support for the 18th resolution dealing with the disarmament of Iraq had come to an end. The Government strongly believes that the decision it’s taken is right, it is legal, it is directed towards the protection of the Australian national interest and I ask the Australian community to support it.

Iraq has a long history of acting in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and an aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons. If Iraq does not have taken from it those chemical and biological weapons, other rogue states will think they can imitate Iraq and as more rogue states acquire chemical and biological weapons, so the danger of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists will multiply. If terrorists acquire weapons of that kind, that would represent a clear, undeniable and lethal threat to a western nation such as Australia. The action that might be taken as a result of this decision has a sound legal basis in the resolutions of the Security Council that have already been passed. If you go back to resolution 678, 687 and 1441, you find ample legal authority. That is not only the legal advice that has been tendered to us but it is also almost identically the published view of the Attorney-General of the United Kingdom Government. It also corresponds with legal advice that has been tendered to the United States Government. It is my intention to table in the Parliament this afternoon the text of the legal advice that has been provided to the Australian Government.

This, of course, is not just a question of legality, it is also a question of what is right in the international interest and what is right in Australia’s interests. We do live in a different world now, a world made more menacing in a quite frightening way by terrorism in a borderless world. And the possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists and the need to take action to prevent that occurring is one of the very strong motivations for the actions that the Government has taken.

The Australian Government believes that the United States has shown great leadership on this issue. It is always easy to criticise the one superpower of the world, it is always easy to find fault with the approach taken by the United States. The truth is for those who have said constantly and still say that all virtue lies in the lap of the United Nations Security Council should remember that it was the action of the United States that returned this issue to New York. Four months ago, the 15 members of the Security Council passed a resolution calling upon active, immediate and unconditional compliance by Iraq with the requirements of disarmament. That has plainly not been the case. It is equally plain that the only thing that has squeezed a few morsels of cooperation out of Iraq has been the presence of the British, or rather the American, and the British forces and to a lesser extent of course our own, given their smaller size in the Gulf region. It is equally plain that if those forces were withdrawn then any semblance of cooperation by Iraq would disappear. I believe that the United States and her allies on this issue have been very patient, they have tried hard but the people in the end who have made their task impossible, in the main of course, have been the people who comprise the Iraqi leadership.

I am very conscious of how difficult this issue is for many people in Australia. I respect the fact that not all will agree with me. I ask them to understand this Government has taken a decision which it genuinely believes is in the medium and longer-term interests of this country. I say to people who disagree – have your beef with the Government, have your beef with me, do not have your beef with the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. They are brave, courageous, young Australians who will need our support, our prayers, our encouragement and our thoughts. Let none of your rancour go in their direction, let it come, as it should in a great democracy, in the direction of those who have taken this decision.

JOURNALIST: Has Australia declared war on Iraq?


JOURNALIST: What other governments have agreed or will be in the coalition of the willing, Mr Howard, apart from Britain?

HOWARD: I can’t give you a full list but I can point out that many of the countries that are providing basing facilities are making a huge commitment. From a security point of view, the commitment of many of those Gulf states that are providing basing facilities is quite immense.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, why are you now prepared to present your legal advice and yesterday you said you weren’t?

HOWARD: Sorry?

JOURNALIST: Why are you now prepared to present your legal advice publicly when yesterday you said you weren’t?

HOWARD: Well, I decided to.

JOURNALIST: What changed your mind?

HOWARD: Well, I thought about it further and I was persuaded by the eloquence of the questions I received yesterday.

JOURNALIST: If Australia is not at war with Iraq now, is there a point coming in the next few days, couple of days, when that will….

HOWARD: If you’re worried about or asking about whether some formal declaration of war is needed no it’s not because the action is being taken on our advice pursuant to existing Security Council resolutions. So there’s no formal declaration needed.

JOURNALIST: What’s the timetable then for possible action?

HOWARD: I’m not going to talk about that, that is an operational matter.

JOURNALIST: Alright, when does the ultimatum run out?

HOWARD: Well the President will be making a speech in a few hours time and he will have something to say about that. But having now taken the decision to commit Australian forces to the coalition for possible future action, I am not going to speculate about when that might occur, that is an operational thing and I’m going to be very careful from now on not to talk about operational matters but to leave that to the military spokesman.

JOURNALIST: … support in the joint party room …

HOWARD: The Cabinet decision? Well I don’t talk about unanimity in Cabinet, but they were very supportive.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister is it the case that only the three combatant nations, the US, the UK and Australia believe that they have the full authority of the United Nations to go to war?

HOWARD: I can’t speak for other nations, I speak for Australia and speaking for Australia we have a very sound legal basis for this decision. We have never needed the 18th resolution of the Security Council to bolster our legal case. That’s very clear, we wanted the 18th resolution to put more political pressure on Iraq. That’s the reason why we wanted it.

JOURNALIST: … not making this announcement in the Parliament?

HOWARD: Why am I not making it in the Parliament? Well there are two reasons, firstly I’m going to repeat it in the Parliament at 2 o’clock this afternoon, so I will be making it in the Parliament. Secondly it is an executive decision and it’s appropriate that it be announced here and then followed by the presentation of a resolution in the Parliament.

JOURNALIST: … engagement under which the Australian forces will be operating?

HOWARD: I’m sorry.

JOURNALIST: Can you set out for us the rules of engagement under which Australian forces will be operating now that they’re committed to this operation?

HOWARD: Well I can arrange for, I don’t have the details of them with me, but they have been separately adopted and I can certainly, to the extent that that consistent with any appropriate confidentiality, I can arrange for you to be briefed on that by the Defence Minister.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister would you expect the size of the existing Defence Force to be bolstered?


JOURNALIST: Did President Bush request additional Australian Defence Forces to bolster the existing contingency that is in the Persian Gulf at the present?


JOURNALIST: Can you guarantee that you won’t increase the numbers?

HOWARD: We don’t have any intention of increasing the number we have deployed, the deployment we have made is quite a sizeable one given our size and our other commitments, it’s managements but it’s sizeable and we have no intention of making it bigger.

JOURNALIST: Will the Iraq resolution go to Parliament today, but it sounded from you said before you’re expecting a bit of rancour. Are you?

HOWARD: Well I think the Opposition disagrees with me.

JOURNALIST: I’m talking about what communities (inaudible) message to the nation…

HOWARD: Some people agree with me, some people don’t. Look the only point I’m making in fairness is that if people are unhappy about this decision they shouldn’t give vent to their unhappiness towards the truth. That’s all I’m asking, that people understand that in a democracy a government takes a decision and if people are unhappy with that decision they should criticise the Government and criticise the head of the Government, and that’s me, on this occasion, but not criticise the troops. I think the way in which, on an earlier occasion, people who’ve disagreed with a decision about troop deployment treated those troops when they came home was a disgrace. And I think it’s very important that our troops be honoured for doing their job and I want to make that very clear, very upfront.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister do you think it could affect the troops’ morale?


JOURNALIST: … legal basis for this military action, but isn’t it true to say that if the current Security Council of the United Nations does not endorse military action, they’ve made that clear have they?

HOWARD: Well the resolution hasn’t been put.

JOURNALIST: … legal basis for this action be undermined if that resolution was put and vetoed?

HOWARD: Well there will be a range of views on that.

JOURNALIST: Is that one of the reasons it wasn’t put…

HOWARD: It wasn’t put because they didn’t think it would win.

JOURNALIST: Are you going to put the resolution to Parliament today?

HOWARD: The resolution? Yes it’s my intention to move a resolution at 2 o’clock.

JOURNALIST: … majority of the world and the UN Security Council believe that diplomacy needed more time.

HOWARD: I’m sorry I didn’t hear the first part.

JOURNALIST: Does it concern you that the majority of the world and the United Nations Security Council believe that diplomacy on Iraq needed more time.

HOWARD: I would wish they’d have had another view, I’d have wished they’d all got behind the new resolution. I’ve being saying now for some days that if everybody had got behind a strong new resolution saying to Iraq disarm immediately or we’re coming after you, that may just have produced the appropriate response in Baghdad but once Saddam Hussein saw the rest of the world was diplomatically divided on this issue the prospect of that happening evaporated.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister is the Government concerned about any possible terrorist reaction now that this decision has been taken by the United States, Australia and Britain and has the Government upgraded the security situation in anticipation of that?

HOWARD: I’ve not had any advice recently suggesting the need for upgrading. As to the general question of terrorism, all Western countries are something of a terrorist threat, a terrorism target rather and the view of Dennis Richardson of ASIO, as expounded a few weeks at a conference here in Canberra, is that terrorist attacks tend to be planned over a long period of time and the actual fact that they’ve been planned is not necessarily affected by particular decisions taken by governments. I’ve been asked this question before and I can only repeat that as a Western nation we are a potential terrorist target, the only time that we’ve been specifically signalled out because of a particular thing we’ve done was of course by bin Laden in relation to the liberation of East Timor.

JOURNALIST: … what does Australia see as being the end game? Is it just Iraq being disarmed or is it Saddam being removed?

HOWARD: Well our policy is the disarmament of Iraq. That’s our goal. But I’ve said before that if you disarm Iraq it’s almost axiomatic that the existing regime will go. But our policy objective is the disarmament of Iraq and it follows from that if the sort of resolution of which I spoke had been passed by the members of the Security Council then you may have achieved the disarmament of Iraq peacefully with the regime remaining.

JOURNALIST: … war might be over Mr Howard, would you expect a fortnight?

HOWARD: Well I’m not going to get into any kind of specificity about that other than a broad indication that it’s not likely to take a long period of time. But I am literally not going to get into that, you can ask the military briefers about that, I am not a military person and I am not going to get into that field.

JOURNALIST: … as to how long a war might go and can you expand a bit on what he said to you this morning?

HOWARD: No, I’m not going to expand on what he said yesterday morning and as for how long it would go, his remarks were essentially no different from the ones I’ve just made to you.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) briefings from the military for us, Mr Howard?

HOWARD: There will be an appropriate regulatory of briefings.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, the former diplomat, Richard Woolcott, said this morning that he thinks this is the worst foreign policy decision by Australia in 50 years, what’s your response to that? And what parallels do you see with history – some people have cited Vietnam, some have cited Hitler – are there any parallels with history?

HOWARD: What was the first bit you said?

JOURNALIST: Woolcott suggesting that this is the worst Australian foreign policy decision in 50 years.

HOWARD: What, you want my reaction?

JOURNALIST: I wonder what you think of that comment.

HOWARD: Well, I expected him to say that. I disagree with him. I think he’s wrong.

JOURNALIST: Are there any parallels with history as far as you can see?

HOWARD: You don’t seek parallels with history when you make decisions about contemporary events. What you have to do is to deal with a situation as you find it. It’s very hard to find any parallels to this situation because the world was different before we had international terrorism operating in a borderless environment. Most of the period of the last 50 years, of course, has not covered a period in which that operated. I mean, the disability of trying to draw his kind of comparisons is that we are living in a very different world than was the case in the 1970s, 80s, even into the 1990s. And I think people who are constantly searching for historical comparisons tend to forget that. And it is true that we should always learn from history, that’s right, but it’s also true that we shouldn’t be so mesmerised by what happened in the past to assume that what happened in the past is automatically relevant to what is now occurring. There is something about the world we now live in which is different and does require a different response.

JOURNALIST: How do you feel personally making this decision which has been anticipated for so long and is obviously so big?

HOWARD: How do I feel about it?

JOURNALIST: Personally.

HOWARD: Well, I realise very much it’s an extremely serious decision and I’ve thought about it a great deal and it does weigh very heavily on me and on my mind, very much so. These are the sorts of things that do keep you awake at night on occasions. If anybody thinks I’ve done this lightly or in some kind of cavalier fashion out of nostalgia for some kind of historical comparison, forget it, it’s nothing of the kind. This has been a difficult, hard-slog issue for me through my own thought processes and having done that I believe very strongly that the position the Government has taken is right. I intend to explain it as best I can and to argue it as best I can to the Australian people and to point out as best I can to them in all the ways that I can the reason why the Government has taken this decision and why it is in the long-term interest of our nation.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, I asked you this in a slightly different way the other day. When you sat down with your ministers in the first place to make your pre-deployment, did it come into your considerations at all at that time that Australia could be left the only medium-sized nation in the world beside the United States and the United Kingdom in Iraq at this time?

HOWARD: I don’t know that we specifically talked about it. It would have been in the consciousness of a number of us.

JOURNALIST: Did you think there would be war?

HOWARD: No, not necessarily.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) say today to the families of…

HOWARD: I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST: What do say today, Prime Minister, to the families of service personnel who are potentially going into a war zone, potentially…

HOWARD: Well, what I say to them is that they are very much in my thoughts. I know they will be in the thoughts and prayers of millions of Australians. I know what an anxious, harrowing time it is for them. It’s the hardest part of service life to have a loved one on active service, worrying that he or she may be injured or killed. There are no words that can be uttered that can completely replace or counter-balance that sense of anxiety and I think about them a lot. I want them to know that I do think about them a lot, their nation thinks about them a lot and their fellow service wives and husbands and lovers and mums and dads also think about them a lot and I think we all should do that because they are doing their duty by their country and they deserve our total support and sympathy and respect and understanding and compassion and I hope all Australians, in their different ways, can communicate that feeling towards them.

JOURNALIST: Is this the most difficult political decision that you’ve had to make in your prime ministership?

HOWARD: Well, I think in many respects it is but, you know, I haven’t really sort of sat down this morning and worked that out. It’s very difficult but it’s the right decision, that’s the important thing. Just because something is difficult to reach a conclusion about doesn’t mean that having reached the conclusion the validity and justice of the decision is in some way qualified. And the difficult decisions in a way are easy to avoid because they are difficult and I wasn’t going to avoid this. The populist thing would have been to have avoided it and I didn’t think that, in the long run, was the right thing to do from Australia’s point of view. That’s why I’ve come to that decision and I now intend, as best I can, and all of my colleagues, to give 100 per cent support to our men and women who are over there, to look after their families and loved ones here in Australia and give them all the support and comfort we can and also to spend all of my waking hours explaining to the Australian public and talking to them. And I do believe this is right and I believe that over time the Australian people will form that same judgement. Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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