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Australia
Prime Minister John Howard
Press Conference on Anti-Terrorist Measures
October 2, 2001

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a number of announcements to make arising out of today’s Cabinet meeting which devoted very considerable time to security and other issues. Firstly I announce that following the September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington … you want me to start again?

JOURNALIST:

Yes please.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well following the terrorist attacks in the United States last month the Government has decided to significantly enhance defence’s counter terrorist and incident response capability. We’ve decided that the terrorist attacks in the United States pointed to the need to better equip the Australian Defence Force with capacity to deal with terrorist attacks which were highly planned and coordinated. And as a result the Government decided at its meeting today to effectively double the counter terrorist capability of the special forces and to reinstate the specialist incident response unit whose capabilities in responding to chemical, biological, radiological and explosive incidents were in place during the Olympic Games. I should note that while the White Paper had foreshadowed the increasing involvement of the ADF in unconventional operations, the events of September in the United States have indicated the need for a higher level of response to the threat of terrorism.

The Government at this stage is unable for security reasons to provide further details on the location or the nature of that enhanced capability which does as I say represent an effective doubling of the counter terrorist capability of the special forces.

We also during our meeting today had a very close look at our security arrangements. We believe that generally the responses taken have been effective and that many of the security measures already in place, particularly at Australian airports, compare very favourably with those overseas. But we have nonetheless agreed to some changes to legislation, which will be introduced if the Government wins the election when that is held, when Parliament convenes after the election. And they will be amongst other things designed to give ASIO greater powers to question and thoroughly investigate and if necessary to hold people for short time on a warrant obtained before a federal magistrate if they suspect a serious security risk; define a specific offence of terrorism with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, specifically to cover conduct of a general terrorist nature including violent attacks or threats of violent attacks; and to improve the process and clearly link to terrorism the Government’s power to seize and freeze terrorist assets. The Treasurer already has general powers in this respect but the improvement we will propose would add an additional terrorist specific schedule to the proceeds of crime act. And dovetailed with this we’ve also agreed that as soon as possible Australia should join the convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism.

We’ve also had a closer look at airport and airline security. We believe that in air travel security the first response in this country has been very good. But improvements are always possible. We’re particularly focused on ideas being developed internationally through the International Civil Aviation Organisation and have agreed to introduce the following measures which are currently under discussion in ICAO. We have agreed to a policy of randomly placing security officers on domestic flights and on international flights both into and out of Australia to better assure the safety of the travelling public. These security officers will be highly trained and will be armed. We’ve asked that our security experts in Commonwealth agencies and departments implement this as speedily as possible. We're also putting in place ever more stringent baggage security measures including full x-ray and physical search of cabin baggage and increased examination of checked baggage. We’re also looking at structural strengthening of aircraft cockpits to better ensure their security.

Could I add in relation to those last measures in the situation and the new environment we now find ourselves in there’s always a dilemma. On the one hand we don’t want to move away from the relatively easy carefree approach that Australians traditionally have adopted in relation to both domestic and overseas travel. We want people to continue to travel, the last thing the Australian tourism industry needs, the last thing this country needs is people to become apprehensive about air travel. On the other hand we do need to take measures to upgrade security. There will be debate in the community about the placement of security officers who are armed on aircraft. We gave that a lot of thought and on balance we believe that it is not only appropriate to randomly place security officers on aircraft but also to arm them. We do live in a new environment, and in a sense a government is damned if it does and it damned if it doesn’t. If we don’t respond and an incident occurs people are entitled to criticise us. And there’s always the haunting worry of course that whatever response is taken an incident might still occur.

The security assessments given to us are that Australia is more vulnerable, but we’re not as vulnerable as others. Everybody has to accept that any nation is more vulnerable in the new unhappy era in which we now find ourselves. We don’t want to overreact but we have a very heavy responsibility not to be in any way complacent or to under react. The Government believes the measures that it agreed to today and which I’ve just announced both in relation to the effective doubling of the counter terrorist capacity and also the new measures in relation to security on aircraft and the foreshadowed legislative changes, those three areas all involving further action by the Government, we think that they are the right actions. We’ll keep the situation under surveillance and if further action is needed then it will be taken. We think they do represent a very important and appropriate response to the circumstances in which the country now finds itself.

JOURNALIST:

Is this because there are sympathisers to Osama Bin Laden here in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s not specifically because of the presence of people who are sympathetic to that or any other terrorist organisation. It is because in the new environment in which we live we think it’s necessary to take these measures. As I said, we can’t afford to be complacent. We don’t want to overreact. We don’t want to interfere needlessly with the freedom of movement of Australians. On the other hand they expect that we take all the measures that we can to provide them with a higher degree of protection and that’s what we’re trying to do.

JOURNALIST:

When you say “effective doubling” does that mean personnel or money?

PRIME MINISTER:

Capacity. There will be more money involved. In the short term that money will be absorbed, in the longer term there could be some additional expenditure.

JOURNALIST:

How does that relate to the White Paper, compared to what the white paper has now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well as I say, in the short term it will be absorbed in the longer term, the longer term meaning the next year or so, there could be some additional expenditure.

JOURNALIST:

How many agents will be put on flights? Dozens? Hundreds?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, no, no, no. A modest number.

JOURNALIST:

ASIO will have power to hold…

PRIME MINISTER:

A period of 48 hours. For questioning and the warrant would be attainable before a Federal Magistrate.

JOURNALIST:

Will they have the power of arrest ?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if you’re going to detain somebody, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Are they secret police?

PRIME MINISTER:

No they’re not secret police. You can’t do it without getting a warrant from a Federal Magistrate.

JOURNALIST:

How soon will these agents be on airplanes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can’t give you an exact estimate in days or weeks. We’re going to start the process. I can’t imagine that there would be any reason why the process could not go forward during any caretaker period into which the Government of this country might move at some time between now and Christmas. So there’s no reason why work can’t proceed. And I would imagine it’s a measure that would have the total support of the Opposition.

JOURNALIST:

…life imprisonment for terrorists - what was it previously?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the specific offence I don’t think exists under existing law.

JOURNALIST:

Are these guards soldiers or are they going to be private...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, they will be people essentially drawn from the police area. They won’t be soldiers. It is not the job of the military to deal with these situations.

JOURNALIST:

When you said before that Australia was “vulnerable” - can you be more specific?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well any country is, any western society is potentially vulnerable.

JOURNALIST:

Have we identified particular threats….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have not been told that there is a specific identifiable terrorist threat at the present time. What we are being told is that every country is potentially more vulnerable and we therefore have to take steps. It is just therefore unreal for a country like Australia to pretend that it just can’t happen here.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Kim Beazley is talking about establishing a Ministry for Home Affairs, based on the British Secretary for Home Affairs, is that something that Australia needs?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you need real responses not bureacratic changes. I’ve announced some real responses. The question of who’s ministry it falls into is an argument over your patch. It’s not a reponse to the problem.

JOURNALIST:

Is the Attorney General able to co-ordinate those measures?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course, there’s no… can I tell you the thing that really matters is what you do not how many ministries you have or how many bureaucrats you have or a turf war between shadow ministers.

JOURNALIST:

On counter terrorism – the SAS officers are all highly trained over a long period of time, how quickly can you double their capacity?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what you do is to add capacity to already highly trained people.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you talked about Air Marshals…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I prefer the Australian nomenclature and that is security officers. They will be placed randomly on both domestic and, domestic Australian flights, and also on Australian carriers into and out of Australia.

JOURNALIST:

Are you not concerned that this would be seen by the travelling public as an overreaction…?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t think it will be. No I don’t. I’m sorry to interrupt you but I didn’t say. I said some will criticise. But I think the travelling public will be reassured by this.

JOURNALIST:

QANTAS over the weekend were doubtful - will you have talks with them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know that. I don’t agree. I don’t agree with Qantas. We will have talks with Qantas but security matters in the end are the responsibility of the Government. Qantas pursues its objectives. Qantas has its commercial objectives. But we have overall responsibility and if Qantas is unhappy with this decision well I’m sorry about that. We’ll take the opportunity of explaining the basis of it, but we think it’s the right decision.

JOURNALIST:

Was the option there to strengthen the baggage holds or cockpits?

PRIME MINISTER:

We haven’t looked at strengthening the holds of planes. We are looking, as other countries are, at strengthening the security of cockpits. All of these things sound rather alien and so forth to us but we’re living in a different environment. I don’t like it any more than many of you will. I don’t like the idea of having to have security officers on planes. I don’t like the idea of having to have all of these additional security checks. But the Government has a responsibility. If we don’t do anything and just assume she’ll be all right, and then incidents do occur, people are entitled to say we’ve been recreant to our responsibilities. I’m not going to have that allegation made against this Government. I regret that we have to do these things but we all regret the circumstances that have brought it about.

JOURNALIST:

In relation to CHOGM will you be meeting …?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ll be seeing Mr McKinnon shortly after this news conference.

JOURNALIST:

Will there be a decision as to when CHOGM might be postponed to?

PRIME MINISTER:

We haven’t gone beyond my discussion with him of the desire of the Government to host CHOGM in Brisbane in the early part of next year. I will repeat that when I see him and I will hope that he will be able to put arrangements in place for that to occur. I would certainly like the CHOGM meeting to take place. It’s regrettable that because Mr Blair and others said they couldn’t come that the meeting had to be cancelled, had to be postponed rather. But I certainly hope it takes place in Brisbane early next year.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have a possible date in mind?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t have a date in mind Tom. Ring me up tomorrow, I might have it worked out by then.

JOURNALIST:

You have cleared the decks….?

PRIME MINISTER:

How do you know?

JOURNALIST:

Have you cleared the decks for the election?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I will be calling the election. I will be seeing the Governor General some time between now and the issue of a writs.

JOURNALIST:

What is the latest on the boatpeople and talks with Nauru?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve been in a Cabinet meeting and my understanding is that the matter’s being discussed in Nauru and thus far there’s no change. We will continue to require people now on the Manoora to leave and are taking what are appropriate steps to find the way for that to happen.

JOURNALIST:

Is it realistic that a government can stop a terrorist who is prepared to take his own life…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Tom that’s a very hard question for me to answer. It is realistic that a Government do everything that is consistent with our way of life to minimise to the maximum extent possible the risk of what we’re talking about occurring. No person, no Prime Minister, no government can give absolute guarantees in an area like this. Nobody can. What I can promise you and promise the Australian public is that we will do everything we fairly and reasonable and practically can to minimise the risk consistent with not trampling on what are valuable rights of the Australian people. We don’t believe anything that we’ve decided so far does that. It will cause some additional inconvenience. That is a very small price for all of us to pay, all of us to pay, in return for the additional security and the additional assurance. And I would hope it would be adequate. But nobody can give an absolute guarantee, I certainly can’t and I don’t think you’ll find anybody else in his right mind who can purport to do so.

JOURNALIST:

Has any decision been made on Australia’s involvement in US….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have indicated that we are prepared within the limit of our capability to be involved. So in that sense the answer is yes, we have made a decision, that was made by me shortly after the terrorist attack occurred. And we are in discussion, our military people are in discussion with the Americans. The chief of the defence force has been in Washington, he’s returning home to Australia shortly and I’ll be seeing him in Canberra I expect on Thursday morning to discuss the matter with him.

JOURNALIST:

Did Cabinet advance….

PRIME MINISTER:

Advance what?

JOURNALIST:

The commitment to America in any way?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we discussed the matter, I don’t have anything further to say beyond that. But we have already decided that in an appropriate way at an appropriate time we’ll be involved.

JOURNALIST:

Are you seeing the Governor-General this evening?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I’m going to a meeting of the Bennelong Federal Conference to make sure that that seat remains safe for democracy whenever the Prime Minister calls an election.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard Econtech and Westpac have both forecast for 2002-03 of 400 to 500 million dollars. Are you still committed to a budget surplus…

PRIME MINISTER:

We are committed to running a surplus. But there won’t be a lot of money for anybody to throw around. Promises on both sides will need to be modest, they will need to match the times. The times have changed, and both sides of politics will have to take that into account.

JOURNALIST:

Could you envisage pump priming of the economy like the U.S?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought you’d been telling me for a year that’s what I’ve been doing. Well some of your colleagues have…you’ve been critical of some of our budget measures but look I’ll let that go over my shoulder. I think the settings of fiscal policy in Australia are good. We’ve paid off a lot of debt. We will have a lower surplus this financial year and we will project a lower surplus next financial year from that projected at Budget time. But we will still project a surplus.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ll I’m not going to get into anything more specific than what I’ve just said.

JOURNALIST:

Two weeks ago you said that personal income tax was an important debate. Do you think that will be a campaign issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, levels of personal income tax and the impact of rollback, and apparently Labor is still committed to rollback, well the more you roll back the greater squeeze you put on personal income tax. Even more so now that the budget position is tighter. So it’s still a very important issue. But everything has been effected by what has happened in the last few weeks. I mean the Australian economy is very strong, it’s very robust, it’s performing extremely well. But it will be effected by the aftermath of the terrorist attack, which is having a negative effect on the American economy, in turn that’s having a negative effect on the economies of the world. And it’s going to be tougher managing the Australian economy over the next year than it would have been had the terrorist attack not occurred. That is self evident and that is going to have an impact on what both sides should commit themselves to in the election campaign. There will be less room because the budget position is necessarily going to be tighter because there’s going to be somewhat slower growth. When you have slower growth that’s accompanied normally by lower revenues and higher expenditure.

JOURNALIST:

Would you like to have the air security guards in place before any action by the US and its coalition?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the two things I don’t think are directly connected.

JOURNALIST:

Is there not more of a threat [inaudible]…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the history of the last 100 years has told us that the greatest threat normally arises when you don’t do anything in the face of unprincipled or unacceptable behaviour.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Preparation. The training of the people.

JOURNALIST:

…. during a caretaker period…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that could occur too. It’s not a new policy. I mean any policy announcement made before the caretaker period gets implemented and therefore, and I just assume that the Opposition would raise no objection. I mean I read something about sky marshals and so forth in the papers this morning coming from the other side. I can’t imagine that the Opposition would have any objections.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don’t want to be more specific other than to say we’ve made the announcement, there will be some training required, there’s no reason why that can’t proceed. Just how quickly it can be implemented I can’t tell you. Well I would expect before Christmas yes, but I can’t be more specific than that. I would expect before Christmas.

JOURNALIST:

How many do you think you will need….?

PRIME MINISTER:

There’ll be a number. Thank you.

END


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©2001 Commonwealth of Australia.