Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


13 January 2009

Press Conference – Parliament House, Canberra

STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much for coming.

As you know, I've been on leave over the Christmas New Year break. I returned from leave yesterday, and I wanted today to make some remarks about a number of issues that have been current over the Christmas New Year period.

Of course, as you'd be aware, the Acting Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been acting Foreign Minister, and can I thank her for that.

Can I start with Gaza. Can I firstly again underline and reinforce the comments made by both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister on this matter.

The Australian Government remains very concerned about the situation in Gaza.

We are strongly supportive of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1860 - a unanimous resolution which calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, and we welcome very much and support very much the efforts, the international diplomatic efforts being made to turn that resolution into practical effect.

In particular, we welcome the efforts of the Egyptian and French Presidents. We welcome the efforts of the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair. And of course we welcome the efforts of Secretary General Ban, who arrives in the region today.

Can I also say we of course remain very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and Julia Gillard, in my absence, indicated early in the new year that in addition to the $45 million which Australia made available in humanitarian assistance for the people of Gaza in the course of last year, that $45 million was of course a doubling of our humanitarian assistance effort, $5 million will be made available for humanitarian assistance as a result of the current immediate conflict.

I can announce that today the distribution of that $5 million will be $2 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, to UNRWA, $1.5 million to the World Food Program, and $1.5 million to the Red Cross.

The $2 million to UNRWA will be used for immediate cash assistance to displaced families. The $1.5 million with the World Food Programme will be used for immediate and urgent food shortages and $1.5 million for the Red Cross will be used for medical and other necessary supplies. We expect that those funds will be made available to those agencies in the course of this week.

As I say, we strongly support United Nations Security Council resolution 1860, unanimously supported by the Security Council, and we continue to urge that resolution on all the parties, and we continue to support the efforts being made internationally to bring that to practical effect.

Can I make some remarks on three other matters, and I'm happy to respond to your questions on these and other issues.

Secondly, Fiji, can I indicate that we are of course very concerned for the welfare of those in Fiji who've been adversely affected by the torrential rain and floods in Fiji. That of course includes, in accordance with the Fiji Red Cross, the deaths of at least six Fijians, displacement, or removal to evacuation centres of over 5000 to 6000 Fijians. So we are very concerned about that.

I'm announcing today immediate assistance of $150,000 to the Fiji Red Cross, and to the Fiji Government's emergency management authority.

And I make the point that last year in the aftermath of cyclones in Fiji, Australia made humanitarian assistance to the Fiji Red Cross and to the Fiji Disaster Management Authority in the order of half a million dollars.

So the Fiji Red Cross, for example, is, we're advised, fully stocked at this stage. But we're announcing $150,000 assistance today. Our officials later today Canberra time will be in discussion with officials from the Fiji disaster management authority to see whether there's more that Australia can do. We, of course, remain ready willing and able to do that, should that assistance be required.

Can I indicate so far as Australians travelling to Fiji or in Fiji are concerned, of course, our travel advisory for Fiji makes the point at this time of year, Fiji is subject to these inclement or torrential weather conditions.

The difficulty, so far, as inconvenience to Australians has been concerned in the last couple of days has effectively been the closure of the road from Nadi to Nadi Airport. I'm advised that the road is in a better state today than in the last couple of days. So hopefully today we will see some further departures from the airport. The problem is not the operation of the airport, the problem is access to the airport. We have two consular officers at Nadi Airport who are rendering assistance to Australians who are inconvenienced.

We continue to monitor that situation and make that assistance, that consular assistance available. If of course as I've indicated, if the Fijian Disaster Management Authority in the course of the day indicates that further assistance from Australia is required, then we will do that and make the appropriate announcements.

Can I make this point: despite the fact, of course, that we have a difference with the interim Fiji Government so far as democracy and the rule of law in Fiji is concerned, we have continued to apply humanitarian assistance to Fiji as appropriate, and we will continue to do that.

Can I just make some brief remarks about Sri Lanka.

In the course of the Christmas-New Year break, Sri Lankan Government military forces took the effective de facto capital, the Tamil Tiger or the LTTE capital of Kilinochchi. Can I make the point that even though we very much understand the significance of that, this does not detract from the Australian Government's longstanding view that what is required in Sri Lanka is not a military solution but a political solution. And we continue to urge on all parties in Sri Lanka a political compact, a political solution. We continue to urge the respect for human rights, so far as all parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka are concerned.

Can I make especial mention of the editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader. Mr Wickramatunga was a permanent resident of Australia. And he was killed in the last few days. Australia very much deeply regrets that. The loss of any life, of course, is a tragedy. But he was a very well respected editor, and a very well regarded Sri Lankan who had permanent residency in Australia. And we of course very much express our condolences to his family.

That leads me to a more general point which is that we have in more recent times seen in Sri Lanka a disturbing attack on media outlets - not just the effective assassination of the editor of that newspaper - but also an attack upon MTV, one of the leading Sri Lankan TV stations.

So we're very much concerned about what appears to be systematic efforts against the media in Sri Lanka. But our essential point there remains the same, which is, we very strongly believe - and this was the point I made to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister when he was in Australia in the course of last year - that the only viable solution to the Sri Lankan difficulty is a long-term durable political solution.

Finally, can I indicate that effectively on Christmas Eve, I authorised $3.75 million worth of humanitarian assistance for North Korea.

This was $2 million to the World Food Programme for emergency food for North Korea; $1 million for UNICEF for emergency water and sanitation supplies; and $750,000 to the Red Cross for similar purposes.

Of course, at this time of year, in the northern hemisphere, food shortages in North Korea are particularly acute. So it's another example of Australia wanting to be a good international citizen, making that humanitarian assistance available to North Korea.

I'm happy to respond to any of these issues, or other matters that you might want to raise.

SMITH: Ross?

JOURNALIST: On the Gaza situation, are you angry or frustrated that both sides have ignored the UN resolution?

SMITH: Well, we certainly call upon both parties to the dispute to comply with the Security Council resolution. Now both parties, as you've indicated, are not proposing to do that.

I think it's fair to make this point: that, everyone in the international community appreciates that when a unanimous resolution was passed, the key then became putting that resolution into practical effect. And that's why we applaud the efforts of the Egyptians, of the French, of the Quartet to try and bring that resolution to a practical effect.

But we strongly support the Security Council resolution 1860, both in terms of a ceasefire durable and fully respected, but also in terms of the humanitarian needs so far as the people of Gaza are concerned.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Government's taken a moderate line despite the escalation, the Israeli escalation of its operations in Gaza. Why wasn't there a condemnation, for example, of the attack on the UN school?

SMITH: Well, from the first moment, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Acting Prime Minister, and on this, my first occasion, I make the point, which we've made repeatedly, that when you have such conflicts, it is incumbent upon all parties to do everything they can to ensure that civilian casualties are avoided. Now, we have seen terrible civilian casualties.

I think it's true to make this point, that when Australians see civilian casualties, whether they are casualties from Gaza, whether they are casualties from Israel, Australians are horrified by those casualties.

The only way we will stop casualties, whether it's in Gaza, whether it's in Israel, in the Middle East itself, is by two things: in the short term, a ceasefire which is durable and fully respected and, secondly, a long term solution which sees a two nation-state solution. A nation state for Israel within secure borders, fully respected, and a nation state for the Palestinian people.

That's the Australian Government's and Australia's longstanding position. And we've made the point from day one, the Prime Minister, the Acting Prime Minister, that in the course of these conflicts, conflicts of this nature, the parties concerned should do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.

Now, on a number of instances, allegations or suggestions of atrocities have been made. The Israeli defence forces have indicated that they are in the process of preliminary investigations on some of those allegations.

The Australian Government supports a proper investigation of any of those allegations. We expect that all parties to the conflict will abide by and respect international law and international humanitarian law.

JOURNALIST: In relation to Fiji, given that you suggested it's more of a logistical issue, and the road, and so on, is there any more that needs to be done to help people get out if they need to? Is Qantas doing enough or is it really just the fact…

SMITH: Our officials have been in contact with the relevant airlines. I think one of the airlines, for example, is Virgin Blue or Pacific Blue, and our officials have been in contact with the airlines to see whether additional flights or rearranged flights might help.

But, to date, the problem has not been flights in and out of the airport, it's been people getting access to the airport. And as a consequence, we've seen people stuck in Nadi and inconvenienced in Nadi, either because they can't get to the airport or because of a shortage of accommodation in Nadi, or we've seen people stuck at the airport as some were overnight.

So, we're continuing to provide whatever assistance we can, including discussions with the relevant airlines to see whether additional flights are necessary.

JOURNALIST: The Al-Shamery family in Kuwait, what are you doing for that family who are stuck in jail?

SMITH: Well, there was an incident at the Kuwait Airport, I think on 23 December, and from that time Australian officials in Kuwait have been rendering consular assistance to family members in Kuwait, but also to family members in Australia.

I am advised, the current situation is that we've got one Australian woman, who has been detained in custody, and is currently under investigation for an offence under Kuwaiti law and two Australian males, two family members, two of her sons have been detained in Kuwait, but given bail, and they are currently under investigation for assault offences.

We've been providing consular assistance to those Australians, including visits to those Australians, including visits to the places where they were detained, that's occurred on a number of occasions. We've also ensured in accordance with our usual process, that they have access to legal advice. We've also been giving and rendering consular assistance to family members in Australia.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

SMITH: At this stage it's being dealt with at official’s level.

I make this general point: that whenever Australians travel overseas they need to ensure they comply with the laws of the country they are visiting. Here we have a situation where Australians are under investigation and they will be charged with offences under Kuwait law. Because it involves Kuwait legal and judicial and court processes, we're providing consular assistance and ensuring they get appropriate legal advice.

JOURNALIST: Minister, do you know anything further about the seriousness of these alleged offences, and what the circumstances were of their arrest?

SMITH: Well, they're, as I understand it, and I don't want to go into too much detail for the obvious reason that these are the subject of investigations by Kuwait authorities and may well lead to court cases, but as I understand it there was an incident at the airport and as a consequence of that the Australians that I've referred to are under investigation.

Two men for assault charges, and the woman for possible breach of Kuwaiti law: insulting the Emir of Kuwait.

JOURNALIST: There's been a formal complaint lodged against your department by the family. How seriously are you taking that? And what are you doing to try and alleviate the situation?

SMITH: Well, whenever Australians travel overseas and they seek consular assistance from us, I make the following point: when Australian travel overseas and are in a different country, there is always a limit to the assistance that we can provide.

The difficulty here is that three Australians are under investigation by Kuwait authorities for possible breach of Kuwaiti law. One has been detained in custody pending those investigations, in accordance with Kuwaiti law. Two have been released from custody but are subject to further investigations. They may well be charged with offences under Kuwaiti law.

What we're doing is ensuring that they have available to them legal advice and we're also ensuring that they are visited in the places where they are detained in custody, and we're giving other family members appropriate consular assistance.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Forum Leaders meeting, getting back to Fiji but a different tack, in PNG in a couple of weeks is the Prime Minister attending and what do you expect to come out of that?

SMITH: Well, at this stage the special Pacific Island Leaders Forum meeting is scheduled to take place in Papua New Guinea, I understand Port Moresby after Australia Day, I think 27 January.

It's a matter for the Prime Minister of course to confirm his own itinerary, but one should proceed on the basis that the Prime Minister will of course attend.

And what the leaders will need to contemplate will be firstly the report of the Ministerial Contact Group, the Foreign Ministers' Ministerial Contact Group report which will be made available to them for the purposes of that meeting, and then consider what action, if any, the leaders need to take so far as Fiji's failure and refusal to hold an election by the end of March this year is concerned.

As the Prime Minister and I have previously indicated, that may well include suspension of Fiji from the Pacific Island Forum. That of course will be a matter for the leaders to contemplate when they meet in Papua New Guinea on 27 January.

JOURNALIST: In his New Year's message Commodore Bainimarama said that there would be elections, but they would need to be properly democratic, indicating some of the processes underway…[inaudible]

SMITH: The Interim Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama gave an unconditional and faithful undertaking to the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum in Tonga in October of 2007 that he would ensure that an election in Fiji would be held before the end of the first quarter of this year.

He made it clear to the Foreign Ministers Ministerial Contact Group, of which I am a member, when we went to Fiji in the middle of December last year, that he wasn't proposing to hold an election on that timetable. Consequences have to flow as a result of the failure of the Interim Prime Minister to meet the faithful and unconditional undertaking that he gave to his colleague leaders.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the medal that John Howard will be receiving in Washington, do you think this is a well-deserved medal? Is it an honour for Australia that he is receiving this medal? Or do you see it more as an endorsement of the Howard years?

SMITH: Well, I deal with the current US Administration as I will until midday on 20 January, so I don't make any comments that reflect on that administration, other than to say the current government has worked very positively and constructively with the Bush Administration. And we look very much forward to working closely the Obama Administration.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any comment on… [inaudible]

SMITH: So far as awards which are given to Australians, Australians will make their own judgements about the merit worthiness of such awards.

JOURNALIST: In Gaza, you referred to terrible civilian casualties, and Australians are horrified at it. Does Australia condemn the use of phosphorous bombs against civilian targets?

SMITH: Well, firstly I see that allegation has been made. I've also seen denials by Israeli authorities that phosphorous has been used.

As I understand the international law of war, limited use of phosphorous is consistent with international law. Whether the Israelis have used phosphorous in the current conflict, and if so, whether that use has been consistent with international law, is not something that I have knowledge of. But it is something which, as I indicated earlier, where allegations have been made about breaches of humanitarian law or international law, they should be the subject of investigation, and the Israeli Defence Forces have indicated they are conducting a preliminary investigation into a range of suggested allegations.

But I do note that the Israeli authorities have indicated that they're not using white phosphorous in the manner that has been suggested publicly.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to your Israel counterpart? Do you have any intention to? Or has there been any government…

SMITH: Over the break, the Acting Prime Minister spoke with Prime Minister Olmert. That was in early January - I'm happy to stand corrected - my memory was the 5th or the 6th of January. And that's been, if you like, the Heads of Government contact between Australia and Israel for the purposes of this conflict.

JOURNALIST: Minister, I think you had some conversations late last year with your British counterpart about the UK departure tax. Are you confident there might be any movement on that, and are you concerned that any other European country might impose similar imposts on flights to Australia?

SMITH: When I was in the United Kingdom for the Australia-UK ministerial talks with Joel Fitzgibbon, the Defence Minister, the so-called AUKMIN talks, the talks were actually held in Leeds because of the holding of a UK cabinet meeting in Leeds.

I think it's true to say that on the train from London to Leeds I made the point very strongly to the Foreign Secretary that Australia didn't agree with a tax which was predicated on the basis of the number of miles away from the United Kingdom.

We saw that as having an adverse impact on potential tourism and travel between Australia and the United Kingdom. I made that point very forcibly and requested the United Kingdom reconsider that decision. To date, I haven't seen any indication that they are proposing to so reconsider.

JOURNALIST: Any plans to pull out of Afghanistan by 2012?

SMITH: Well, Joel Fitzgibbon responded to that yesterday. As we've made clear, we're in Afghanistan for the long haul. Defence, of course, from time to time, will always do planning work. We're not proposing to put a timetable on it, and I draw your attention to the comments that Joel Fitzgibbon had to make yesterday.

JOURNALIST: Back to Fiji. It would seem - and he was talking of analysis this morning with ANU, they say that it's probably likely that Commodore Bainimarama will use the floods as a sort of reason why pressure on the Government should be added for, you know, for democratic change.

Do you see a risk of that?

SMITH: I don't think Commodore Bainimarama had the floods in mind when he gave a faithful and unconditional undertaking in October 2007 that he'd hold an election by the end of March this year.

JOURNALIST: On the subject of the guest worker scheme, there seems to be some hold-up of people actually arriving in Australia to work, although some of the people have obviously signed an MOU on it. Do you know the update on what's happening?

SMITH: We're continuing to progress that pilot program. As we indicated, we are being assiduous about the planning and the preparation. I'm advised that we're getting very close to the end of that planning and preparation work.

A couple of general points which we'd made in the past: Firstly, the use of the pilot program, or the use of Pacific Island workers will of course be dependent upon a lack or a shortage of Australian workers. We've made that point. So to use the jargon, it necessarily has to be demand driven.

But we also want to make sure that it applies or suits itself to the seasonal variations of particular industries, in particular, the horticultural industry.

So, our planning and our preparation and our work on that continues in accordance with our own timetable. We continue to be very optimistic that that pilot program will prove to be a good thing to have engaged in.

JOURNALIST: The Government says that it recognises Israel's right to defend itself in the current circumstances…

SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister made that point abundantly clear, as do I.

JOURNALIST: Isn't Israel at risk of overstepping…[inaudible]

SMITH: Let me make a couple of general points. I certainly regard the cause of the current conflict as being Hamas's refusal to continue with the ceasefire or the so-called lull, and as a consequence of that, 300 rockets from Hamas going into Israel at the end of 2008. I certainly regard that as the cause of the immediate conflict.

But let me make this point. Whether it's conflict in Gaza now where we see terrible civilian casualties or conflict in Israel or suicide bombers or terrorist attacks in Israel itself where we see civilian casualties, none of this will change unless and until we have two things: in the short term, the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1860, which would see an immediate and durable and fully respected ceasefire; but secondly and more importantly, the adoption of a two-nation-state solution - a nation state for Israel, secure within defined borders, and a nation state for the Palestinian people.

I frankly don't regard the launching of 300 rockets into Israel in the course of December as coming from an organisation which respects the right of Israel to exist as a nation state.

Now, having said all of that, I think it's very important here that we look to the future, which is why we strongly support the United Nations Security Council unanimous resolution, and we strongly support all the efforts by the Quartet - the UK, the US, the EU and Russia - and the efforts by Egypt and France, to bring about an immediate ceasefire which would see that durable and fully respected, and then the international community to continue to get behind the long-term peace efforts, whether it's the Arab peace proposal or the Annapolis proposals.

I read parts of the contribution by Foreign Secretary Miliband in the House of Commons overnight. And he made this point, which I think is a very telling point: If we're in the business of condemnation, we all stand condemned, the international community stands condemned for its failure, not over weeks or months or years, but over decades for the international community's failure to bring about a lasting and durable peace in the Middle East.

That is the only thing which will stop these sorts of terrible events from occurring.

As I say, whether the victims are Palestinian people in Gaza or Israelis or Palestinian people in Israel or in the West Bank, the only way we will stop these terrible atrocities occurring is a long-term, durable peace process which is predicated on the basis of fully respecting two nation states, a nation state for Israel and a nation state for the Palestinian people.

JOURNALIST: You've had a letter from the Australian West Papua Association regarding the 11 West Papuans who were jailed by Indonesian authorities for being at a demonstration where the West Papuan flag was raised. The lobbyists for the West Papuans are concerned that the very good relationship between Australia and Indonesia never sees the West Papua issue raised. Will you raise the issue?

SMITH: Well, first, I haven't seen that letter, but I'll make a point of ensuring that it's drawn to my attention. That's the first point.

Second point, it is not true that Australia and Indonesia do not discuss issues of Papua or West Papua. Indeed, not only do Foreign Minister Wirajuda and I, when we meet, discuss these matters privately, when we last did a joint press conference in Jakarta, we discussed them publicly.

So we continue to make the point, as we have in the course of our period in office, that we regard conditions in Papua and West Papua as being very important. We believe that the current Indonesian government, with its view of greater autonomy for both those provinces, is the correct and appropriate way to go.

So the implication or the assessment forming the basis of your question is not correct and I'll certainly search out the letter that you've referred to.

JOURNALIST: What about Matthew Hayden, on a lighter note?

SMITH: Well, I haven't seen his formal announcement, but everyone's telling me, including SKY TV, that he's proposing to announce his retirement.

I think he's a great Australian. I think he's been a terrific left-handed opening test batsman for both Queensland and Australia in all forms of the game. His retirement, I think, will be greeted with great affection by Australian cricketing supporters and the Australian public because he's made a substantial contribution.

I think together with Arthur Morris and Justin Langer, he lays claims to being in the top three left-handed opening batsmen for Australia of all time.

Thanks very much. Cheers.


Media inquiries

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