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Howard Questioned About Bali Warnings

October 15, 2002

This is the transcript of the joint press conference given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Prime Minister of Fiji, Laisenia Qarase, at Parliament House, Canberra.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well ladies and gentlemen, the Prime Minister and I have had a very good discussion. Relations between Australia and Fiji are in very good shape. I want to very warmly commend the Prime Minister for the way in which he has led his country out of great constitutional difficulty. He's shown very strong leadership, he's shown a great deal of domestic political courage and as a result the degree of stability that Fiji has needed has returned. The economy, although it faces a lot of challenges, is recovering, and I've observed to him and I'm happy to observe it publicly that Fiji has been something of a certainly a good example, perhaps even a case study of the capacity of the country to take itself out of a constitutional morass and return to what by the standards of governance in a number of other not only Commonwealth countries but a number of other countries around the world claiming a description of democracy is a fine example. So I want to say to you Prime Minister how much I respect and admire the leadership you've displayed in your country. Nothing is perfect in any country but you've come a very long way in a difficult situation and you certainly have the goodwill of my government and the goodwill of the Australian people. We have a lot of links with Fiji. I greatly enjoyed the hospitality of the Fijian government and the Fijian people at the recent Pacific Island Forum and I hope that you and your wife enjoy your brief visit to Australia and that it will contribute further to building our very close relationship.

PRIME MINISTER QARASE:

Thank you Mr Prime Minister. I have explained to your Prime Minister Mr John Howard the progress that we have made in terms of political development and economic development in my country. The year 2000 events behind this I believe we are on the path towards political stability. It's a very stable country and it continues to be stable under my government's leadership. We are recovering reasonably well on the economic front. Our economic indicators are looking good. And I have taken the opportunity to express our sincere gratitude to your Prime Minister and the government of Australia for the very helpful stand and attitude taken during our difficult period and I believe the stand and the attitude taken were both constructive and very pragmatic and we are grateful for that. And I believe that the restoration of bilateral relations is complete and it is now time for us to build on this foundation to strengthen further the very strong bond that exists within the two countries.

And Australia of course is the most important trading partner for Fiji. It is also a very generous provider of assistance. That is very much appreciated. The assistance is always given very generously. We accept the assistance and I've given the assurance that the assistance by the Australian government is filtering through to our rural people where it is intended to be utilised. And that is very much appreciated by the government of Fiji as well as by the people. I was attending a joint meeting of the Australia/Fiji Business Council and the Fiji/Australia Business Council yesterday and also today. There is a air of optimism in the meeting. We are looking forward to receiving further investment and funds to invest in Fiji and we will welcome any opportunity for that from Australia in the future. Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

.. pacific islands forum... conditionality on aid. Is there anything today Prime Minister, was this appropriate in the case of Fiji...

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Fiji, for the reasons I explained, is high on the good governance stakes in the area and therefore the answer to your question is no.

JOURNALIST:

... Australia can offer any more aid or have we offered....?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well I suppose you can always...if any country looked at an aid program in isolation it could always do more. But let me say that I think our aid program for Fiji is very strong and very generous and very well balanced. We give increasing priority to aid in the Pacific region and I think that's right, and we'll certainly maintain the current level. As for the capacity to boost it in the future well that's something we have to look at amongst all the other budget priorities that the government has.

JOURNALIST:

A question for both prime ministers. What do you think of Simon Crean's idea of a regional summit to discuss terrorism?

PRIME MINISTER QARASE:

I have taken the opportunity to convey to Prime Minister John Howard our very profound sympathy for the tragedy in Bali. Our sympathies and our prayers go to the people of Australia and in particular to those who are affected personally and closely by the events in that country. The tragedy itself gives us all a warning that no country is safe from terrorist activities at any time and any part of the world and as a Pacific Forum unit we will certainly try and work towards improving and enhancing our capability and ability to secure our region. That must be a top priority not only in each individual country but also for the region as a whole. And we would be happy to work with the Government of Australia, and oteher Governments of the Pacific to work towards that end.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Howard, another question on the Bali bombing. There is a report in the Washington Post today that US intelligence intercepted communications in late September that said there was going to be a strike on tourist areas in Indonesia and Bali was specifically mentioned. Are you aware of this intelligence and what is your response to it?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

That hasn't been brought to my attention, no. Not that newspaper's story and I can only repeat what I said in the Parliament yesterday that we had no warning of the specific attack that occurred. There have been generally warnings about the deteriorating security position, the deteriorating terrorist position in Indonesia, but what I said yesterday is the case.

JOURNALIST:

Were there general warnings though about public places where ex patriots go, to restaurants and bars?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well I'd have to look back over... I'm not going to answer a question like that without checking again. I don't want to get an answer like wrong but what I can tell you is that there was nothing in the intelligence that constituted a specific warning about this attack.

JOURNALIST:

Would you be disappointed if it was specifically...[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Well look I'm not going to speculate. This is too serious an issue to speculate on the basis of something that I don't even know is correct.

JOURNALIST:

Are you satisfied that the Australian warning to potential tourists was strong enough and why was it rather less strong and specific than the American warning apparently was?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

The consular warning? I thought the consular warning was strong, yes. Quite strong, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Strong enough? PRIME MINISTER: Yes I do.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you indicated this morning that it could be quite difficult to track down the perpetrators of this deed. Do you think it could be impossible?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

Glenn, I'm not going to even try and speculate about that. I mean that is not helpful. All I can tell you and tell the Australian people is we will do everything we can to track these people down. It will be difficult. How does it help if I say it might be impossible? That doesn't achieve anything. I mean we're meant to be seriously addressing ourselves to catching these people, not play some kind of word game about the possibilities.

JOURNALIST:

How concerned are you that the terrorists may strike next within Australia?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

I think it's a possibility. It's a lesser possibility than strikes in countries where terrorism and terrorist threats have been treated differently from what they are in Australia. And because of the character of the country, and this is not itself meant as a criticism, because of the structure and nature of Indonesian society, the opportunity for and the potential for extremist Islamic based groups, and I stress extremist Islamic based groups, the potential for them to be nurtured and grow is much greater in those countries obviously than it is in a country like Australia. But I don't know how many times one can sort of say it again and one has to avoid saying it differently lest that be the subject of comment. But it can happen here. We are more at risk than we were. We're not as at risk as other countries but we can't afford to be complacent. Now that has been the Government's position for a long time and obviously that is reinforced and heightened as a consequence of what occurred on the 12th of October. And that is why we are reviewing the adequacy of our domestic intelligence, the adequacy of our domestic security legislation, why we're looking at our anti-terrorist response capacity. We don't have any outcomes of that. I only instituted the review yesterday but clearly, self-evidently, obviously, we have to look at all of these things again. I mean after what has happened it is just self-evidently our first obligation.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] anti-terrorist legislation. Do you think that the events of the weekend put more pressure on the Senate to allow the anti-terrorist ASIO Bill to go through in its current form?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

At this point I'm not going to get into a comment that might then be construed as some kind of attack on or criticism of other people in the Senate. I mean we are dealing with an unprecedented event in the history of our country and everybody has a responsibility to choose their words carefully, to speak with absolute sincerity in a very difficult situation. And what I have said is that because of what happened it could be necessary to further strengthen our domestic security legislation. Now I haven't and the Government hasn't reached any conclusions yet. I only instituted the review yesterday and until I reach some conclusion I'm not going to hypothesise about what other people might be doing or suggest they behave in a different fashion. I accept that this is an event that has horrified Australians beyond the partisan political divide and that Australians want of their political leaders right now a united cohesive response and they will have no patience, and rightly so, with the use of this issue for partisan political remarks or partisan political point scoring. And I'm not suggesting that we're going to remain in some kind of bipartisan nirvana. I mean obviously that's not in the national interests of a robust democracy. But when you're dealing with something like this you do have a responsibility to avoid the retributions and to put partisan politics aside for a while.

JOURNALIST:

Is this group Jemaah Islamiyah on Australia's list of terrorists and if not, why not?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD:

I'll be saying something further about that in Parliament today. I'll be saying something further about these matters generally in the Parliament today so I don't think there is any point in taking any further questions. The Prime Minister and I must go to lunch and I thank you all for your attendance. Thank you.

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