Press Conference, Brisbane State High School

Subjects: East Asia Summit, situation in Horn of Africa, surgery, DonateLife campaign, media inquiry, live cattle, Australia Network, death squads in Burma, regional processing arrangements

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

20 July 2011

KEVIN RUDD: First of all, it's great to be here at Brisbane State High School. I've been talking to the Year 11 and 12 students about their futures, about futures in the Australian foreign service, futures in working in the Australian international aid agency and futures in working in the world in general.

This is a great high school and there are kids from across the world literally at this high school. I know it well. It's in the heart of my electorate, here in Brisbane. And it's been a great privilege to be able to spend some time with the kids this afternoon.

And then, in the great spirit of the democracy of Australia's senior secondary schools, copped some interesting questions on the way through as well.

So, well done to the kids. I hope I did them some justice with the answers I've provided.

Today, I am leaving Brisbane to travel to Indonesia for the meeting of East Asian Summit Foreign Ministers, 18 of them from around East Asia and the United States, and then the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, which deals also with regional security questions.

This will be an important meeting because we are building up to the East Asian Summit later this year, which will, for the first time, be attended by the United States, with President Obama's attendance, and also Russia at head of government level as well.

This region is of vital relevance to Australia's economic and strategic interests into the future.

First and foremost, we have more than $300 billion worth of annual trade with the countries of this wider region.

Therefore, we have a massive vested interest in this region's long term security and stability.

And that's why, secondly, this East Asia Summit is critical in beginning to develop a system of common security across the wider region, a system of rules and norms for security policy behaviour across the wider region, in a region which is still characterised by many, many unresolved territorial disputes, many unresolved political conflicts, many unresolved ideological disputes, as well.

Therefore it's important that we use this institution, which in part, at summit level – derives from the work which the Australian Government put into the concept of an Asia Pacific community – is given every opportunity to work.

Australia will be actively contributing to the shaping of the agenda for the summit later this year, both in terms of how we deal with the challenges of maritime security across the wider region, as well as confidence and security building measures, such as how we have better integrated counter-disaster management systems across all of this region, given how prone we are to natural disasters.

I think that's what the peoples of our region expect as well.

Having attended those foreign ministerial meetings in Indonesia, I'll then travel to the Horn of Africa. I'll be travelling to Nairobi at the invitation of the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, and then travelling with the United Nations to border camps between Kenya and Somalia.

We are on the cusp of an extraordinary humanitarian crisis in the world. This is the worst drought on the Horn of Africa for 60 years. There are some 10.8 million people who stand to be directly affected by it, 1.8 million of whom live within southern Somalia and are therefore in a region of the world which is also prone to massive insecurity because of the rolling activity of the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab.

Therefore, in my discussions with the head of the UNHCR, Guterres, the head of the World Food Programme, Josette Sheeran, as well as last night with the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, it is absolutely critical that the international community gets the message that we must act now to avoid an unspeakable humanitarian disaster.

That is why the Australian Government has decided to contribute a further $30 million to the efforts which are now underway, primarily by the World Food Programme, but also by the UNHCR, in the Horn of Africa. This is necessary to feed people, it is necessary to clothe people, it is necessary to provide them with shelter, it is necessary to provide them with clean drinking water.

We in Australia do not intend to stand idly by while this region is visited yet again by a large scale humanitarian disaster, as we've seen in previous decades. There is some good news in the sense that the World Food Programme, partly supported by Australia, has already pre-positioned large supplies of food and other medical equipment in the border regions surrounding Somalia to deal with such an eventuality.

The challenge, however, lies most particularly with the 1.8 million people who are physically in Somalia, who are very difficult to reach at present. And we know from reports as they come out what a weakened state they are in.

Australia also stands ready to provide further assistance, as is necessary. This is approaching famine proportions. And the international community must act, and Australia will play its part.

Once I return to Australia, I have some other things to attend to, which I would also like to mention briefly to you this morning.

When I get back to Australia, it's come time for a bit of a grease and oil change myself, I'll be having aortic valve replacement surgery at a hospital either in Sydney or in Brisbane.

Those of you who know my medical condition well know that I had one of these done about 20 years ago. It's wearing out. The docs have said, Kev, it's time for a new one.

And so, being the obedient soul that I am, I've decided to take their advice and that's what's happening.

Surgery will be on or about 1 August. The precise arrangements are being sorted out by cardiologists and by cardiac surgeons and that will be known in due course.

On top of that, the normal recovery period is somewhere in the vicinity of about eight weeks. That's what I went through last time, 20 years ago, when some of you may remember I was Director-General of the Cabinet Office here in Queensland, and I haven't aged a bit since then.

And then, I'll be back at work and doing everything that I have done in the past. And in case anyone raises the question, the doctors advise me that I have every expectation of a total recovery, as happened last time.

This is now a reasonably common procedure across the country, stacks of people have it, and so it will not change one iota my intention to re-contest the seat of Griffith on behalf of the Australian Labor Party at the next election. And I intend to continue to make whatever contribution I can to Australian public life through the Government following the next election.

And two final points. I've been the beneficiary of organ donation in the past. What is in here at the moment belongs to somebody else, who died and who’s loved ones decided to donate this tissue. I'd like to thank them for that.

I'd also like to make it very clear to people across the country how important it is to donate to life. The DonateLife campaign around the country is really important. We still have a couple of thousand people on organ transplant lists around Australia. And it's really important that people in the Australian community, when they're faced with family tragedy, think of gifting their loved ones' organs to help save the lives of others.

And one final, final point is I got this through rheumatic fever when I was a little kid a long, long time ago. Fortunately, I'm advised rheumatic fever has virtually been eliminated in Australia; in white communities but not in Indigenous communities.

And, again, I would say that it's important that the nation redoubles its efforts to ensure that rheumatic fever is removed from the disease risks which young Indigenous children face across the world as well.

And I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Who will be replacing you as Foreign Minister while you're off?

KEVIN RUDD: I spoke to the Prime Minister about all this, this morning. As is normal, the Trade Minister Craig Emerson will be Acting Minister during my period of recovery and recuperation. I promise not to pick up the mobile phone…

QUESTION: Just on the subject of the Horn of Africa. Australia has probably increased its immigrant intake from there in the past few years. Is there any thought in this particular context of increasing it any further?

KEVIN RUDD: Based on my recent discussions with the Immigration Minister, no. But, as you know, we are constantly evaluating who comes to Australia through the normal resettlement program for refugees from around the world. And we are always very mindful of where crises are hitting but that lies within the prerogative of the Immigration Minister.

My job, my responsibility is to make sure we do everything we can from preventing - we do everything we can to prevent, literally, hundreds of thousands of people from dying.

And that's why I'm travelling to the region, with others - with the Executive Director of the World Food Programme - to make it absolutely clear to the world community we have the opportunity now to make a huge difference and not repeat what has happened in previous decades where we've seen huge loss of life in this part of the world.

QUESTION: Do you anticipate the $30 million will be the end of it or will we be contributing more over the course of [indistinct]?

KEVIN RUDD: This is an evolving situation so we do not know precisely what shape this will be in, in two to three months time. I've had long discussions with the heads of the three agencies I referred to before.

The death rate now is significant. What they are uncertain about is how this will unfold between now and December when food shortages really hit.

And the real challenge also lies with how we deal with the security problems within southern Somalia. And what I've said to the head of the World Food Programme is that we in Australia stand ready to be flexible in how this food gets in, and not necessarily with every i dotted and t crossed in a perfect aid delivery environment.

If you know anything about southern Somalia, it's not. The key thing is we get aid in even if it's done less perfectly than other parts of the world. And the WFP need that sort of flexibility.

QUESTION: Do you think it will be one of your most gruelling trips you've ever been on?

KEVIN RUDD: I've been on a few before. The first travel I undertook abroad as Foreign Minister was to the flood-affected areas of Pakistan where many, many people were flood-affected. I think it's important that the international community speak with one voice on this and say that we can make a difference if we act now.

And the best way to say that you're going to make a difference, put your best food forward and say, this is what we in Australia's name are doing. And then encourage others to follow if they haven't acted already.

QUESTION: What about long-term action? This is a region that could become more flood prone if some predictions about climate change are accurate. What can be done long-term?

KEVIN RUDD: More drought prone, you mean?

QUESTION: Drought prone.

KEVIN RUDD: I'll leave to one side the debate amongst the climate change scientists about causalities for this particular drought. But generally what the science says is that over time droughts become more intensive, more severe and of longer duration.

This is the worst one in 60 years but the affected number of people is huge. When you're looking at 10.8 million people, we have a major challenge on our hands.

So I know in humanitarian planning by organisations around the world, they are very mindful of climate change and its effects on particularly vulnerable communities. The most recent debate on this in the international community has been about what's happening in Darfur in western Sudan where changes in vegetation and arable areas of land have led to large shifts in population, causing security problems and other humanitarian crises.

QUESTION: The various times over your career you've reflected on the performance of the media. Do you have a view on the media inquiry and whether there should be a…

KEVIN RUDD: You're looking as pretty as normal…

QUESTION: [Laughs] Alright. Do you have a view there on a media inquiry?

KEVIN RUDD: That's very much the prerogative of the Prime Minister. I know that we've had, I think, a reference for some time to the Law Reform Commission in an investigation of privacy matters in Australia.

And obviously some of the issues in the current debate would pertain to that. But, more generally, that's a matter for the Prime Minister.

QUESTION: Will you be working more - any more on the live cattle issue while you're in Indonesia?

KEVIN RUDD: The essential questions that were resolved when I was in Jakarta last time were: one, the reissue of import permits - 180,000 head - and, two, getting an agreement between the two industries - Indonesia and Australia - on industry to industry arrangements to progressively introduce stunning for I think the 30 to 35 abattoirs which will be processing Australian cattle in the future.

Those are two large outcomes. Other outcomes have been delivered as well. And I know that the implementation of that is very much in the in-tray of the Agriculture Minister and our embassy in Jakarta as we speak.

QUESTION: Just to continue on media matters, have you been approached at all by anyone within the ABC about the contract, in particular by Mark Scott or Michael Millett?

KEVIN RUDD: I think my recollection is that at the very beginning of this process that the ABC came to see me, as the responsible Minister, to argue their case. At that point I then made arrangements for Sky to come in and make their case and subsequent to that had no engagement with the ABC on the matter.

QUESTION: But you've had engagement with both tenderers?

KEVIN RUDD: Yeah, at the very beginning of the process before it was referred then to the tender evaluation board.

QUESTION: And it was that point that I think the ABC specifically was told not to approach ministers.

KEVIN RUDD: That is a matter for the ABC's internal arrangements and I'll let others respond to that. Okay folks, you've got anything else to ask?

QUESTION: And, Mr Rudd, one more. There are reports that there are nine people living in Australia who were once part of a death squad in Burma. How do we pursue these allegations?

KEVIN RUDD: Well, I understand from the Attorney-General that the most logical next step is to conduct an appropriate investigation by the relevant law enforcement authorities in Australia to establish the facts.

Once the facts are established then other things take their course. But that is the next step and that's, I'm sure, well in hand by the Attorney and those who work within his portfolio.

QUESTION: Mr Rudd, Julia Gillard's approval rating is much lower than yours. Why do you think this is?

KEVIN RUDD: Well, it's a tough time for the Government. The Government is dealing with a range of challenges: first and foremost the government was elected as a minority government; secondly, the challenges of introducing reform on the carbon price across the country; and, thirdly, the fact that we now face real challenges in the global economy as well.

The public debt debate in Europe, the public debt debate in the United States; this affects global economic stability and that in turn reverberates into Australia.

So, if you look across the field, there are real challenges facing the government and therefore it's a tough time. But I'm confident that we'll see our way through this.

Any other questions folks?

QUESTION: Can you survive this leader?

KEVIN RUDD: I am confident that the Prime Minister will lead the Government through to the next election.

QUESTION: Just in relation to I think the Malaysian situation. From memory, we're waiting for UNHCR? Have I got my acronym right? Can you just give us, I guess, an update? Where's that situation at?

KEVIN RUDD: I'll leave the Immigration Minister to answer that, but I've simply reiterated what I had said all along throughout this debate and that is what is fundamental I think for all Australians and certainly for the Government is that the UNHCR is supportive of the arrangements arrived at with any other country in our region on regional processing arrangements.

Where that is now precisely up to between the Immigration Minister and the UNHCR in Geneva is a question you can put to Chris. Okay folks, I need to rock and roll, or in an earlier age, zip.

QUESTION: Safe travels.


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