Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Press Conference, Brunei

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Prime Minister

Subjects:

East Asia Summit 2013; Australia-Japan relationship; Trans-Pacific Partnership; minor parties; entitlements.

E&OE

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here in Brunei for the East Asia Summit, following on from the presence in Bali for the APEC meeting. These are two very important meetings for Australia. The first is about trade. This one is about security. Trade and security issues are very important for our country because, in the end, it all comes down to jobs: jobs for Australians – that's what these meetings are all about. If we have more trade, we have more jobs, and if we continue to have strategic stability in our region, we will have more trade. So, both of these meetings are essentially about trying to ensure that we have the right environment to create more jobs for Australians – that's what it's all about.

Now, both of these meetings, I think, have been very encouraging. There is a real momentum for freer trade, as was obvious at the APEC meeting in Bali. Yes, there is momentum for bilateral trade deals to be concluded, but there is also quite a push for plurilateral trade deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is making real progress and that’s good for all of the potential Trans-Pacific partners, but here in Brunei it’s obvious that there are encouraging signs of a development of a code of conduct for relationships in the South China Sea. We know that there are some longstanding disputes in the South China Sea. Australia's position is that these should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, and in the meantime, this code of conduct for the parties to these disputes is very important.

Yesterday, I met with three of our important trading partners – with China, with Korea, with Japan. This morning I met with Vietnam. Shortly, I will meet with the Prime Minister of India. Then of course we have the East Asia Summit plenary session. I think these have all been good meetings. I think the collective meetings and I think the individual meetings have all been good and productive.

The final point I want to make is that Australia always has been a good international citizen. We are a country which has promoted trade. We are a country which has tried to stand as strongly as we can for decency and good values, for friendship between nations. That’s the way it has been in the past, and as far as I'm concerned, that’s the way it will be in the future.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, can you just expand a bit on what you told the Japanese Prime Minister in terms of Australia's relationship and what you were driving at with your comments about Japan’s increasing strategic role in the region?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the phrase I've used on a number of occasions now is that Japan is Australia's best friend in Asia, and that doesn't mean that we don't have other good friends. Obviously, China is a good friend of Australia and I hope in the years to come China becomes an even better friend of Australia. India is a good friend of Australia, and again I hope in the years to come, we'll have a more developed relationship with India than we do now, but we've had a very good and strong relationship with Japan going back pretty close to 60 years now. We have had very strong trade relationships with Japan from the late 1950s thanks to the trade treaty negotiated by John McEwen under the Menzies Government. When Britain went into the European common market, Japan very much filled the place that Britain had occupied in Australia’s trade. Japan is a fellow democracy. Japan is a fellow member of the US alliance network. So we've got a very good relationship with Japan, and I think as time goes by and as Japan puts the wounds and the scars of World War II increasingly behind it and other countries put the wounds and the scars of World War II increasingly behind them, Japan is going to play a more important part and, dare I say it, a more normal part in the life of the world, and that's encouraging. Japan – it’s a democracy, it’s been a stable democracy for 60-odd years now. There is no question that Japan is going to continue to be a stable democracy. It’s a democracy which has now had alternations in government. It is a democracy which has liberal pluralism very much at the core of its being, and that’s why I think Japan has much to offer the wider world.

QUESTION:

Did you broach the subject of whaling and if so what was the nature of that discussion?

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn't broach the subject in this particular meeting. When I was in Japan as Opposition Leader a few years ago, I did raise the subject of whaling then and I made it clear that Australia had a very strong view about whaling. We would much prefer that Japan didn’t continue whaling but on this particular subject, I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, is it Australia’s view that China is being a bit too assertive in the South China Sea?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I wouldn’t want to see happen at a meeting like this is any sense that countries are ganging up on anyone; wouldn't want to see that. That said, I think it is important that we do have a clear and understood code of conduct for the conduct of parties in the South China Sea. It’s in everyone's interests. There was a declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea back in 2002. What we now need to see is a code of conduct based on those principles, so that in the event of any tension it can be dealt with before it gets out of hand.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, in your view, after your discussions with the various leaders here, what is the level of risk, as you see it, of the potential of conflict in the South China Sea and what would you see for Australia in the context, the strategic partnership with the various countries involved?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is some risk – no doubt about that – but I think it is a risk that is reducing because of the kind of work that is happening at a conference such as this. I do want to make it clear that strategic stability in this region – in particular, strategic stability in the South China Sea and in the China Sea – is very, very important. It's very, very important. It's important for the whole world, not just for the countries which border on the South China Sea. It’s important for Australia. Almost 60 per cent of our trade goes through the South China Sea, so strategic stability is very important, and I think everyone realises that. I don't think there is a country represented at this conference that isn't very conscious of the need for continued strategic stability in the South China Sea, and that's why I'm very encouraged by the move towards the establishment of a code of conduct.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, in Bali you put a 12-month timetable on the China FTA. Does that timetable also apply to the Japan and Korea FTAs? And also the East Asia Summit next year is being held in Myanmar. Do you think that's appropriate given the ongoing human rights struggles there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, the working target that I've got for these free trade agreements is 12 months. Now, it would be better to get them in 18 months than not to get them at all, but nevertheless, if you don't set some kind of a target, you don't have the incentive to get things done, and in the case of the China agreement, that's been meandering along since 2005, and it's very important that we accelerate it, bring it to a conclusion. The Japan and Korea free trade agreements have similarly been in train, but unresolved for a similar length of time. So, yes, let's give ourselves 12 months to bring these agreements to a satisfactory conclusion.

On Myanmar, or Burma, look, I accept that there have been some human rights issues in that country. I think the human rights situation in Burma is much better now than it has been. Aung San Suu Kyi is now a part of the process in a way that she wasn’t for many, many years. We had a visit from the President of Myanmar to Australia in the last 12 months or so. I'm confident that things are moving strongly in the right direction inside Myanmar, or Burma, and I think it's perfectly appropriate for this meeting to be there next year.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, Clive Palmer has announced this morning that he is forming a voting bloc with the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, Senator-elect Ricky Muir. He says he wants more resources in order to pass legislation. Are you worried about this situation and can you work [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, have we dealt with EAS and APEC-type issues, and then we will come back to that?

QUESTION:

Just one thing briefly, you met the three leaders of our biggest export markets yesterday. You said you hoped for 12 month target. What about them? What did they say to you when you broached this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks, Rowan. Look, one thing I won't do is put words into the mouths of my interlocutors, but I think I can say that they were all pretty receptive. I think that all of our significant trading partners are very conscious of the benefits of both of us of freer trade. Look, the universal refrain around the APEC leaders' table was the importance of freer trade for the prosperity of all our peoples, and notwithstanding the differences on other issues that are occasionally apparent, notwithstanding the fact that every country does tend to have a certain self-interest in these negotiations, by the same token everyone accepts that, in the end, everyone is better off the freer trade can be.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, just on that, there have been some concerns raised about whether individual free trade agreements are the best way to go. Why is your government intent on signing individual FTAs?

PRIME MINISTER:

All of us would prefer a swift and satisfactory conclusion of the Doha round, but if you can't get a multilateral agreement, better to get a plurilateral agreement, and if you can't get a plurilateral agreement, better to have a series of bilateral agreements. It’s better to take small steps in the right direction in the absence of large steps and my philosophy is that if you can't get what you want today, take what you can get and go for the rest tomorrow. So, as far as Australia is concerned, we will always be working towards freer international trade and if we can get multi-lateral or plurilateral deals, let's take them. If we can't, let’s get the best bilateral deals that we can, let’s get as many bilateral deals as we can and the fact that there have now been quite a few bilateral deals that have been beneficial for both sides – not just Australian bilateral deals, but bilateral deals around our region – I think, is driving much of the momentum behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

QUESTION:

Can I ask you generally, before we get onto domestic stuff, what is your overall takeout having had a series of meetings over the last week or so? Australia has had a number of prime ministers in recent times, so what is your general sense of the reception you’ve received and the attitude of the leaders that you've met?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Australia is well regarded. I mean, I'm not here to canvass domestic politics and there is not much domestic politics canvassed. Obviously, people like John Key and Stephen Harper are political allies in a way that might not be true of some of the other leaders, but generally speaking, I’m not here to canvass domestic politics and I think that when you are abroad, you’re here to represent your country and not simply to represent a political party and Australia, as I said, will be a good international citizen under the current government. We've tried to be a good international citizen by our lights and in accordance with our judgments under previous governments.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, just further to that, I think it's fair to say that foreign policy has never been one of your main passions. Have you enjoyed…

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that's a phrase that belonged to a former Prime Minister, isn't it?

QUESTION:

Nonetheless, have you enjoyed yourself at this summit and how do you think you’ve performed on the world stage?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not going to run a commentary on myself. I will leave that to distinguished people before me and others, but this is an important part of the prime ministerial role. You get a different job, you get a different role, and the challenge is to grow as quickly as you can into the different role that you have when your job changes and, as I said, I will leave others to judge how that might be going.

QUESTION:

Have there been benefits, do you think, in having such a quick immersion into international affairs and also to have met in such a short time after you became Prime Minister with key trading partners, allies and so on, or has it been more difficult than you had imagined?

PRIME MINISTER:

Jim, I suspect that it probably is a good thing to have a quick immersion, but the point I want to stress is that, in the end, this is all about better government for Australia; this is all about a better deal for the Australian people. Australian leaders don't go abroad for the benefit of other countries. Sure, we do want to do the right thing by other countries, but we go abroad for the benefit of Australia and Australians and that's why I stress that the APEC trade and economic meeting was all about Australian jobs in the end and the EAS security meeting is all about strategic stability in which trade can flourish. So, again, it all comes back to Australian jobs and prosperity.

QUESTION:

And, Prime Minister, do you think you have a better understanding of Asia and the region now?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I've had a pretty fair understanding of our region for a very long time. I’m not sure about the details of school syllabi these days, but when I was in Year 11 and 12, I studied East Asian history. When I was a student in England, I studied sub-continental history. I've travelled – not vastly, but a little – in Asia. I spent three months in India back in 1981 when I was on my way to be a student in England. I've had a couple of family holidays – for what that’s worth – in Bali, so I'm not a complete stranger to the region and obviously as time goes by, the engagement will only deepen, because the point I've been making for a long time now is that when it comes to foreign policy, Australia has to have a Jakarta, not a Geneva focus, because we need to be concentrating on that part of the world which is of most immediate relevance to our country and where we can make the most difference for the good and that, obviously, is our region.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, did you raise human rights concerns at either of your meetings with the Chinese Premier or the Vietnamese leader today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sam, look, again, the short answer is no, but both the government of China and the government of Vietnam are aware of the fact that Australia strongly supports the rule of law. We support the rule of law internationally. We support the rule of law domestically, but, look, I'm a new prime minister. We will say our piece when there are major human rights abuses taking place, but generally speaking, it's not the job of the Australian Prime Minister to stand up and give lectures to the wider world. Ok? Domestic issues, Alex. Ok.

Look, I'm aware that there been this development and my view about the entitlements of minor parties and independents is that there is a standard convention and we will adhere to the standard convention when it comes to staffing for minor parties and independents.

QUESTION:

Are you concerned though that Clive Palmer is saying now that he will have, well his party will have effectively four votes in the Senate. He is threatening to hold up legislation on this point and a range of others. How concerned are you of the power that he is going to have?

PRIME MINISTER:

The public want to see a constructive parliament. Particularly after the difficulties of the last parliament, I think the public wants to see a much more constructive parliament this time. I am going to be working as constructively as I can with everyone in the parliament. My view is that I will treat all members of parliament with courtesy and respect including minor party and independent members of parliament and I am confident that everyone in this parliament will want to see a different spirit this time than last time and I'm confident that everyone in this parliament very well understand that the new government has a clear mandate to get certain things done: we've got a clear mandate to repeal the carbon tax, we've got a clear mandate to repeal the mining tax, we've got a clear mandate to stop the boats, we've got a clear mandate to build infrastructure, to reduce red tape and I’m confident that minor parties in the Senate understand that and we will support that.

QUESTION:

Are you happy to negotiate with all four of them as a bloc or will you still try [inaudible] get legislation through?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, we will deal with everyone with courtesy and respect. That's always the way I try to do things and that's been so in the past and it will be even more so in the future.

QUESTION:

Can you rule out any changes or review of the entitlements system once you return home?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, the point I made the other day and I don't want to get into a long discussion of this, because I think there is a sense in which there has been a debate about it already and we don't want point to fixate on this, but the point I make is that whatever the system is, there will always be arguments at the margins. There always will be. It doesn’t matter what the system is, there will always be arguments at the margins. People should act within entitlements and if there is any doubt, the doubt should be resolved in favour of the taxpayer.

QUESTION:

Wouldn’t a simpler system enhance public confidence both in the system, and also in politicians?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m not sure that there is any great issue that is not going to be there regardless of what the system is. I mean, politicians are entitled to travel when the travel is reasonably related to their office and that’s what all of us do and occasionally there is an argument over a particular use. One way or another, it’s always resolved and the point I make is that people should act within entitlements. If there is any doubt, the doubt should be resolved in favour of the taxpayer.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, some of the entitlements were actually wound back in recent times in exchange for higher salary. Do you think that’s a possible avenue once again to wind back some of the travel entitlements if the pay goes up?

PRIME MINISTER:

Andrew, this is going to be the last question I take on entitlements. I’m not proposing to change the system. I'm not proposing to change the system. If people want to make suggestions, they’re welcome to make suggestions, but I’m not proposing to change the system. I think it is important that members of parliament, ministers, prime ministers, opposition leaders, be able to travel pretty freely around our country in order to do their job and in the end their job is to engage with the people of Australia for the peace, order and good government of our country. You don't want members of parliament to be prisoners of their offices. You don't want members of parliament to be shut up in Canberra. If we are going to do our job of representing the people of Australia, we’ve got to be able to move freely amongst the people of Australia and if anything, I think that it’s too easy to become a prisoner of your desk in Canberra and so I think that it’s important that we should have a reasonable ability to travel for the purposes of properly representing the people of Australia.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, have you taken any steps with your own team to ensure that there aren’t any other stories like this that will come out? Have you called for an audit of your own side of politics?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Mark, I said I wasn't going to take any more questions on this subject. So, are there any other questions that people would like to ask? Ok, thanks so much.

[ends]