Doorstop Vientiane, Laos

07 Sep 2016
Vientiane, Laos
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: What a beautiful temple, built in 1818 – the oldest in the city.

We’ve been talking this morning about investment, about innovation, about all of the elements that add to stronger trade and stronger economic growth. Jobs and growth here in Laos - supported by Australian aid, supported by Australian support for entrepreneurship. It’s good that we are doing so because today we see in the national accounts confirmation that we’ve had 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia. Very strong growth figures relative to other developed economies - of course much higher growth figures as they have been for some time - for example, in any of the G7.

That growth, that strong economic performance in Australia over a quarter of a century has been built upon the hard work of millions of Australians, millions of businesses, large and small. It has been built on a commitment to open markets and free trade. It has been built on a commitment to economic reform and ensuring that our economy has the flexibility to cope with shocks such as the big rise in our terms of trade during the mining construction boom and, of course, the inevitable decline. It is a tribute to the resilience of our economy and a reminder that we can’t take that growth for granted. We have to ensure that we remain committed to those values of free trade, open markets, innovation, entrepreneurship - these are the keys.

Now, here in Vientiane meeting with the leaders of the region, the leaders of the eight of our top ten trading partners, the most powerful countries in the world represented here. What we are reminded of, is the importance of our prosperity dependent upon the open markets in the rest of the world. That is why I made the point in Hangzhou - and this was something that all of the leaders agreed, I might say - is that protectionism is not a ladder to get you out of the growth trap. It is a shovel to dig you deeper into it, dig you deeper into the low growth trap.

Protectionism will lead to slower growth. It will lead to more poverty. It will lead to fewer people being lifted out of poverty and declining living standards. So that is something we have to resist and we have to make the case for open markets and trade. At the same time, that prosperity - both in Australia and through the region - is underpinned by peace and stability. So national security is a vital element in our economic security. We can’t have economic security without national security.

We’ve seen in the last few days the reckless, dangerous, provocative conduct by the Government of North Korea with their latest missile tests. That has been condemned by the Security Council overnight, just as it was condemned by myself, as Prime Minister, and our Government and other governments around the world.

We also face a very real challenge in terms of terrorism. Now we have seen the ISIL publication urging attacks in a number of well-known Australian locations. We have to take these threats seriously. As I said last week in my national security statement to the Parliament, as ISIL or Daesh is rolled back in the Middle East, they will seek to maintain relevance by seeking to inspire attacks elsewhere in the world.

Now many of the nations that are here assembled – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, just to name a few – have been victims of significant terrorist attacks in very recent times. They too face the challenge of returning foreign fighters, adding to already radicalised elements in their community. So our collaboration in terms of counter-terrorism is critically important. It is intense now. It will become more so. We are engaged now and we will become more engaged. Cooperation in that regard, particularly in terms of intelligence sharing, is vitally important.

So these are big themes - economic security, national security - that we'll be discussing here today and I look forward to the countries of our region working more closely together to secure our future, to secure the prosperity of all our communities.

JOURNALIST: PM, you are meeting Shinzo Abe this afternoon.


JOURNALIST: One of his big security concerns is what's going on in the East China Sea and we've seen Japan responding there by changing its constitution so it can be more adventurous overseas. Are you concerned about Japan and China rubbing up against each other? What would be your message today?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we support the continuation of the harmony - relative harmony - of more than 40 years, frankly, in East Asia. It is vitally important that all parties work together openly in accordance with the rule of law, and avoid in any context provocative actions which are likely to add to, or create, tensions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you think the summit is going to be able to do anything constructive on the South China Sea? And what's your message to the summit going to be about how the region who manage relationships between China and the US?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, China and the United States have an enormous commitment to this region. Each of them do. That commitment increases over time and they both have an enormous role to play.

All of the countries in our region - and Australia is absolutely no exception here - have a commitment to working both with China and the United States. The United States is obviously our very closest strategic partner. But we have very close and friendly relations with China. They're our largest trading partner and the ties between Australia and China get stronger all the time.

As I said in Hangzhou, only last year, there were around 1.25 million tourists coming to Australia and I expect there to be more next year which is the year of China-Australia tourism.

So, I know it's fashionable to say that you've got to choose between China and the United States. The reality is, these are both enormously important powers in every respect and all of the countries in this region. I know, from dealing with their leaders, all of us are committed to working with both, because our commitment is to maintain peace and harmony in this part of the world.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on the South China Sea again. Australia does often protest and it declares support for the rule of law. But shouldn’t Australia again consider some sail-throughs and overflights as a demonstration and not just say these things?

PRIME MINISTER: We are committed to supporting, ensuring the rule of law is complied with. It underpins everybody’s prosperity, of every country large and small, from the largest, China to the smallest, Laos is one of the smallest.

JOURNALIST: PM can I just ask of the economic growth figures, are you concerned at all though that a lot of it is being driven by Government spending?

PRIME MINISTER: Well a lot of it is driven, you’re right, it’s driven by strong public sector demand. There is a lot of infrastructure development, not least of which is the increased, accelerated investment in the NBN as that project gets rolled out. That project, the NBN is one of the very significant achievements of our Government. We inherited a complete mess, as you know. 50,000 premises were connected or activated in six years of Labor government, with lots of rhetoric. We changed the board, changed the management, gave them the flexibility to have a proper commercial business approach and you know you’ve got well over 3 million premises with the service available. Well over a million premises where it’s activated. So you’re getting up towards 30 per cent of the country covered, it’ll be three quarters by 2018, complete in 2019/20. It is really rolling out actively. In the last four weeks, we activated 91,000 premises, paying customers, that’s nearly twice as many as Labor did in six years. So all of that is a lot of investment.

JOURNALIST: On national security Prime Minister, you’ve called for a regional approach to tackling Islamic State from the Asian regions. Is that possible, particularly given the trouble they’ve had in Europe getting a combined approach and did that come up in your meetings with President Putin and President Erdogan?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, the meetings I had with President Putin, President Erdogan and indeed President el-Sisi of Egypt were all focussed on the challenge of terrorism and, in particular, of ISIL. There is obviously a military struggle, a military battle going on in Syria and Iraq which naturally was a large part of those discussions, in particular with Presidents Putin and Erdogan.

But there is a larger challenge and this is the one to demonstrate that this path of extremism is wrong. That’s where Muslim leaders like Joko Widodo of Indonesia are so important. Joko Widodo is a charismatic popularly elected leader of the largest Muslim country in the world and as he points out again and again, Indonesia is positive proof that Islam, democracy and moderation, a tolerant society, are compatible. So he’s a very powerful advocate for that and a great example, I believe.

JOURNALIST: When it comes to counter-terrorism, what, in terms of greater cooperation in the region, what are you after? What sort of commitments, what are we not getting that we should be getting and would like to get? What are you willing to share that we’re not already? 

PRIME MINISTER: The key thing, David, is cooperation across a whole lot of levels - in terms of security expertise, above all its intelligence. Sharing intelligence is critically important so that we know what’s going on, who’s coming back from the Middle East, if they are coming back, what they’re doing.

We are dealing with a transnational threat and I think it’s fair to say that - you see this in a lot of policy areas frankly - that governments have not been as quick as they ideally would’ve been in terms of recognising the speed and the transnational nature of modern communication, social media. Its catching up, believe me and there is an urgency. That’s why it’s vitally important that we engage and focus on that. As you know, I have in my party, my principal international advisor, Greg Moriarty, until very recently our counter-terrorism coordinator so I’m travelling here with the very best of advice on the counter terrorism front and what we’re doing to work with our neighbours in that battle to keep Australians safe.

JOURNALIST: With South China Sea, the Philippines, are you confident you know where they stand in relation to China’s view of the South China Sea, perhaps the reason you may have to have a chat with President Duterte? And just on the North Korean missiles, does the Government have any reason to suspect China may have sanctioned that test?

PRIME MINISTER: Can I say the Security Council, of which China is obviously a permanent member, has condemned the North Korean activity. It is reckless, dangerous, provocative, destabilising. Regrettably it is consistent with the pattern of behaviour and the North Korean leadership would be much better advised to be focusing on the welfare of its citizens which has been obviously sorely neglected for a long time.

In terms of the relations between ASEAN and China, let me say that the ASEAN nations have a close economic relationship with China and a close relationship in virtually every other respect. ASEAN is a consensus organisation, there is a real commitment to maintain stability and peace in the region. Everybody has a part to play in that. I’ll just say we have to recognise that the hundreds of millions of people that have been lifted out of poverty in this region, many of whom of course - perhaps the largest part of - have been in China and that would not have occurred without that peace and stability. So maintaining that is absolutely critical.  Avoiding, if I may be accused for lapsing back into Greek history which President Xi and I are fond of, avoid the Thucydides trap and that’s a critical objective.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you emphasise intelligence sharing as the most important gap in terms of national security.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m not saying it’s a gap, I’m saying it’s something that everybody needs to do more of. You’ve seen terrific, large failures in intelligence sharing in Europe for example.

JOURNALIST: So are you specifically asking countries at this conference to upgrade their intelligence sharing with Australia? Are you seeking a direct link and better intelligence sharing?

PRIME MINISTER: The answer is yes but we do so all the time. Very often it’s a question of having the intelligence and making sure - we have, I would say, the best intelligence services in the world. Certainly there are none better. What we need to do is to ensure, all of us need to ensure we have a better understanding of what those who seek to do us harm are up to.

JOURNALIST: ASEAN has been pushing for a code of conduct in the South China Sea for more than a decade now and so far it’s remained elusive. What are you doing behind the scenes to help ASEAN nations get that code of conduct and how likely do you think it’s going to happen by next year?

PRIME MINISTER: We certainly encourage all the parties to reach agreement there. Australia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, you know that. Our interests are wholly and solely intentions being allayed, differences being resolved, disputes being settled. The settlement of the code of conduct is obviously a very important element in that. Australia, our position is one of promoting agreement, harmony, the settlement of disputers and the avoidance of any exacerbations of tensions.

Thanks very much.