Transcript of press conference, Singapore
MON 23 APRIL 2012
Subject(s): Visit to Singapore; ANZAC commemorations; Peter Slipper
PM: I’m very pleased to be making my first visit to Singapore as Prime Minister, and I’ve started the day here at the Kranji War Memorial and I do want to say a few words about that as we are in the days in the lead up to ANZAC Day.
April is memory season; the time on which we reflect about all we have lost as a nation (inaudible). And this year is the year in which we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Now that was an event that rightly shocked and frightened Australians, bringing home to them the reality of war, and that reality was then brought even closer to home with the bombing of Darwin and Northern Australia in the period of time that followed.
On Wednesday, we will commemorate ANZAC Day and I will be very honoured to attend the Dawn Service and other commemorations at Gallipoli. But, today is an important time to reflect on the sacrifice of Australians here in Singapore. Around a thousand Australians died defending Singapore and Malaya against advancing Japanese forces, and of course there were other nationalities who fought here and died as well, the English, New Zealanders and Indians to name just a few, and then there was the tremendous suffering and loss of the people of Singapore and Malaya.
It’s been a tremendous opportunity to come here today to reflect on that loss, and I’ve also very much enjoyed meeting former prisoner of war George Robert Smith. You might have seen us talking and laughing together. It says everything about the larrikin Australian spirit that when he reflects on his days as a prisoner of war he brings forth humour and jokes as his way of remembering.
To help us remember and to pay respect to those in our defence force and their families it’s also fitting that as ANZAC Day approaches we take another step in recognising the sacrifice and the service.
I am well aware, in talking to Australian Defence Force families, about the sacrifice of the families - the long absences, the anxiety, the worry, the stress, the strain. And so today I can announce that the Government will be issuing a special pin to the families of those whose loved ones who are serving overseas in the Australian Defence Force – those who are on deployment.
Now this is a small way of recognising the burdens of these families, and a small way of saying we thank them too, for what it means to be a family of an ADF member, we thank them for what they do for our nation.
I am indebted to Deb O‘Neill, the Member for Robertson, for first raising this idea with me, and she, in turn, is indebted to one of her local constituents who brought the idea to her, Milan Nikolic. And, I would like to particularly thank him and thank Deb O’Neill for bringing this idea to me. I think it is a good one.
We already have some pins and badges that recognise families who have loved ones serving overseas, but this will take a more comprehensive approach and I am very pleased to be able to announce it today.
And, then for the rest of the day here in Singapore, I will be involved in a series of discussions and meetings. I am looking forward, later today, to a formal meeting with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Prime Minister Lee. We have had the opportunity to meet on a number of other occasions and I am looking forward to meeting him here in Singapore. I will also be meeting a number of leading Singaporean business leaders.
I have come to Singapore with four objectives in mind: to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to this bilateral relationship and to deepening it; to promote Australia as a secure and open place to do business and to invest, a great place to come and work in our economy; to underline the value we attach to our defence relationship with Singapore; and to discuss economic and strategic change in our region and in the regional forums in which we work together.
Singapore is one of our closest and most important partners in South East Asia. We work together closely on regional issues and in regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit, APEC and the Asia Europe Summit. Our economic relationship is a strong one and it is growing. Singapore is our largest trading partner in ASEAN and out fifth largest trading partner globally. Our bilateral free trade agreement with Singapore is our second oldest. The only one that is older is our one with New Zealand. And many Australians work here and live here and many Australian businesses have their regional headquarters here.
So, in this century of Asian growth, we can learn a lot from Singapore’s record of innovation and adaptation as well as its tremendous economic success in exploiting its competitive advantages.
I will also be very pleased, later today, to present an honorary AO to C K Ow, who is a legendary Singaporean business leader, who has been one of the mainstays of the Australia-Singapore business relationship for many years.
So, all of that will be a focus of the visit. But we shouldn’t forget the importance of our defence ties too. Singapore values the opportunity to train and come and do exercises in Australia, including at the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey, where Singapore does helicopter training, and that is under an agreement that we are about to renew. That would have come to the attention of many Australians during the worst of the days of the Queensland floods when Singapore was very, very quick to offer the services of those helicopters for flood relief should they be required.
So, the relationship between our two countries is a busy one, it is a mature one, but there is always more that you can do together. So in this visit I will be proposing to Prime Minister Lee that we formalise an annual meeting between leaders, either in each other’s countries or in the margins of international meetings, to make sure there is always the high level guidance necessary to further develop the relationship. And I will also suggest that we task the next meeting of the Singapore Australia Joint Ministerial Committee to report back to Prime Minister Lee and me on ways to deepen our cooperation and our trade and investment cooperation. So I am looking forward that series of events today. I am very happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why is it appropriate for Mr Slipper to step aside and not Mr Thomson?
PM: Well, obviously I realised that you would be asking me questions about this matter, and I am very happy to answer them. When Australians look at their Parliament, Australians rightly expect parliamentarians to play by the rules and to uphold the respect and integrity of the Australian Parliament. They rightly expect that and they should do so. I believe the decision that Mr Slipper made yesterday to step aside while allegations relating to potentially criminal matters are investigated, I believe the decision he made to step aside was the appropriate decision.
On Mr Thomson, I dealt with that matter extensively back in Australia. Mr Thomson is a backbench member. He is not a parliamentary office holder.
JOURNALIST: Did you suggest to Mr Slipper in any way that it would be appropriate for him to step aside, and have you had any indication as to how long the investigation into the fraud allegations may take?
PM: On your second question first, I think the appropriate thing now is for everyone to respect the processes that are under way. Those processes are independent of me and so I can’t help you with a ‘guesstimate’ about how long they would take. That question would need to be directed at those people who are engaged in these processes. As for Mr Slipper’s decision, it was a decision for Mr Slipper and taken by him
JOURNALIST: Was the decision taken with consultation with anyone from your office?
PM: I did not speak to Mr Slipper directly. As I believe is already a matter of public record, the Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives, Mr Albanese, spoke to Mr Slipper.
JOURNALIST: When did Mr Albanese speak to Mr Slipper?
PM: Oh, look you’d have to go through details with Mr Albanese.
JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, are you saying that if Mr Thomson did actually hold a higher position it would be appropriate for him to step aside?
PM: Well, Mr Thomson, at an earlier point in time stepped aside from the (inaudible) position. You would probably recall that.
JOURNALIST: What do you know about the new allegations about the Tasmanian use of allowances by Mr Slipper and his staff?
PM: Nothing other than what has been reported in today’s newspapers.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you willing to head back to the negotiating table with Andrew Wilkie to shore up his support, and have you or anyone in the Government spoken to any of the crossbenchers?
PM: Well, I have not. We are continuing to work with Mr Wilkie and work with him constructively on poker machine reform and on issues of importance to the Australian nation. So we will continue to do that and our attitude will be the same as it has been before this weekend and recent events.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has said again this morning that he questions your judgement and your integrity for supporting Mr Slipper’s speakership (inaudible).
PM: I expect Mr Abbott to be negative about everything. That is what Mr Abbott is and that is what he does. So if he’s going to be negative about everything then he is going to be negative about this. But Mr Abbott, as he spews forth with that negativity, would need to recognise that Mr Slipper was pre-selected by the Coalition on nine occasions. That is my understanding.
There is, you know, a relationship with these pre-selection matters and Mr Abbott’s leadership. That is, Mr Slipper was pre-selected as recently as the last Federal Election and was a candidate in that election under Mr Abbott’s leadership. I do note that allegations that have been made on the weekend – and we should, for the record, say that they are strenuously denied by Mr Slipper – but I do note that allegations made on the weekend involved not only Mr Slipper but the conduct of senior Liberal adviser Mr Tony Nutt, who worked in Prime Minister John Howard’s office when Tony Abbott was a senior member of John Howard’s front bench.
So in all of his negativity, before he gets too carried away, I think Mr Abbott might want to reflect on those facts.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minster, are you confident that you will be able to continue to operate in Parliament while Mr Slipper is absent?
PM: Yes, I am.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Mr Albanese said on Radio National this morning that it would be inappropriate for any Member of Parliament to try to direct the Speaker to take any action. Are you saying Mr Albanese spoke with Mr Slipper-
PM: Yes, but you should not assume anything other than what I have said, thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: He didn’t direct him to take any action?
PM: Well clearly, look at Mr Albanese words and draw your own conclusions. That is the only rational conclusion you can draw.
Prime Minister: Well, can I say two things about that. First, I formed a professional judgement about Mr Slipper’s ability to act as Speaker in the parliamentary chamber and to control the Parliament in Question Time, for example, having watched how he performed as Deputy Speaker. And, Mr Slipper, as he has done his work as Speaker has kept firm control of the Parliament, particularly during what can be a quite raucous period, Question Time. I don’t claim to know Mr Slipper personally or well, but I formed a professional judgement about his ability to do the job.
Then, number two, having Mr Slipper be Speaker has enabled the Government to do some important things on behalf of Australian families. And, our focus is always running the economy, running the Parliament, running the nation in the interests of working people. So, to take just one example, it has enabled us to end the spectre of hardworking taxpayers’ money going to support the private health insurance of millionaires. So that money can be available for front-line services that families need. Now that is important to working families.
They are the sorts of goals that I have as Prime Minister: looking after working families and making sure that we best meet their needs, for the services they rely on, great schools, good hospitals, family payments support which assist them, like paid parental leave and the like.
JOURNALIST: Has that professional judgement (inaudible)?
PM: Well, there are proper processes in train now and, as I said before, I think people should respect those processes.
JOURNALIST: You said that it enabled you to make some important reforms. One of those was to renege on Andrew Wilkie’s gambling reform proposition. Do you regret that at all? How did that help working families struggling under debt?
PM: Well, in a statement I have become famous for and I will say it again: I reject the premise of your questions and I reject it absolutely.
The issue with the poker machine reforms that Mr Wilkie would have liked to have seen become the law of Australia is that they did not have the support necessary in the House of Representatives. That was the problem – that even with the Government voting for those reforms that they would not have succeeded to become the law of Australia.
Now I know Mr Wilkie has a different assessment from me on that fact, but I am very familiar with this issue and I am very familiar with people’s views of it, and I formed that view that the legislation would not get through the Parliament. And, in those circumstances we commenced discussions with Mr Wilkie about the biggest package of reforms on problem gambling that the nation has even seen.
And, to fully answer your question, yes that is in the interests of working families because I have met too many people, from the kind of families you live next door to, the kind of families you feel you know really, really well, but what you don’t know is happening behind those closed doors is that they can’t meet the mortgage, they can’t put food on the table, they can’t get the kids to school with everything paid for that the kids need, because too much money is going down the poker machines.
JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott said the issue with Peter Slipper calls into question your integrity.
PM: Well you’d expect Mr Abbott to make wild and negative claims, that’s who Mr Abbott is. He, I think, would need to reflect on the facts of this matter. He would need to reflect on the decisions taken by the Coalition, including under his leadership, before he starts making statements like that. There are things here for Mr Abbott to reflect upon.
JOURNALIST: Just on ANZAC Day, Prime Minister, how important is it for you personally to be attending the Gallipoli service?
PM: Look, I am very much looking forward to it. I have never had the opportunity before to travel to Gallipoli. I have never had the opportunity to mark ANZAC Day on that sacred soil, and so I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to be there, to be there in person, to meet Australians who are travelling there and to reflect on the sacrifice that our nation has made across all wars and, of course, today we continue to have very brave ADF members serving for us overseas. That’s why we do want to better recognise their families.
I don’t have a direct, personal connection with the people who served at Gallipoli. I am a Welsh migrant. My grandfather did fight in World War I, but obviously he fought with the British Forces and he did not fight at Gallipoli. But, I think for all of us, as Australians there is that deep sense of connection to what it is to be Australian and that means that there’s a deep sense of connection to the Anzac story that forged so much of our national identity.
JOURNALIST: Were you emotional here, walking through the cemetery?
PM: Whenever you see displayed before you grave stones like these ones, that you can walk down and not only feel the power of how many of them are there, but read the details of the people and the ages, of course it’s an incredibly powerful thing and I felt that very deeply today. As you can walk past grave stones where, you know, a person is 19, I would say a kid is 19, and they’re there and they sacrificed for Australia. It is a deeply affecting place to be.