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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 January 2005, 11:30 GMT
Immigration issues
On Sunday, 30 January, 2005, Sir David Frost interviewed Alexander Downer, Australian Foreign Minister.

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Alexander Downer
Alexander Downer, Australian Foreign Minister

DAVID FROST: When the tsunami struck on Boxing Day, the Australians were the first nation to pledge aid.

They concentrated their resources on Indonesia, the country that suffered the most, and is of course geographically closest to Australia.

Despite the huge sums promised by countries like Britain and America, the Australian government is pledging more than any other nation.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, visited Indonesia to see the devastation for himself, and he's here now. Welcome.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Thank you very much.

DAVID FROST: Let's just start, there's lots to talk about, but when you actually went to see things for yourself, which none of us in this studio have done, what, what was the most awesome thing you saw?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well I think what you can't really understand just from looking at it on television is the sheer power of the waves.

The way they are just able to knock down concrete barriers, destroy buildings, move cars hundreds of yards inland, you can understand why so many people were killed when you look at the sheer power of the, I think it is believed to be, three waves that ploughed through these communities. So that's the most striking thing.

DAVID FROST: And how long will it take to get things back to normal? Is it a matter of years, decades, or is it months?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well there are sort of two phases to this, first of all there's obviously their immediate relief effort which is still underway. For example in Aceh in the, north of Sumatra, providing just essential food and medication to the communities.

But overall, to get those communities rebuilt, schools, hospitals, water treatment plants, sewage, all of that rebuilt, that's going to take a good five years.

DAVID FROST: Five years.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think so, yeah, many years.

DAVID FROST: An estimated length of time, today's headlines about Iraq, of course you still have Australians there in Iraq, as we have, and do you think that if this election holds and sticks that your troops and our troops will be able to leave, or are we talking five years like you were talking about the tsunami?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well quite wisely we're not putting a timeline on how long our troops are to stay -

DAVID FROST: As long as it takes -

ALEXANDER DOWNER: As long as it takes, to use a phrase, but there's a bit more to it than that. I think now that we're having the elections and this is an enormously important point in the history of modern Iraq, where they had an election in 2002 there was a hundred per cent turnout and a hundred per cent of people voted for Saddam Hussein, so this 2005 election is something very different and exciting for all of those of us who believe in democracy to see.

But, you know, we'll end up with democratic institutions in Iraq and ultimately they will have a lot to say about how long the international military force should remain - we'll have to wait and see. But look the challenge here, after the elections, is to make sure that we are continuing to work to build up the Iraqi security forces so they can take control over the security situation not us having to do it.

DAVID FROST: And that absolutely is what comes next because, I guess as someone mentioned earlier, the disappointment has been that, for instance, that the taking of Saddam Hussein didn't change, change the violence in any way, one has to hope that this election will change the violence or in the short term should one not be disappointed if it doesn't?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well I think we have to accept that the violence will continue for quite some time.

Remember what al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader in Iraq, has said, and that is that he is the enemy of democracy, they are determined to destroy democracy in Iraq, so I suspect that having attempted to destroy the election process and failed they will continue to try their best to undermine democratic institutions. These are people with an enormously ideological disposition against democracy and freedom.

And I think all of us have to understand, whether we were in favour of the initial intervention in Iraq or whether we weren't, that we've got to see this through rather than allow the country to fall back into a state of anarchy and subsequently tyranny.

DAVID FROST: What about this country for a moment, and your influence on this country, with Lynton Crosby and with the, you know, obviously, Lynton Crosby -

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I know Lynton very well.

DAVID FROST: - was called as one of the key advisors to John Howard in your recent election and now he's over here helping the Conservatives, so you've seen him in action.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well of course. I mean Lynton comes from the same town in Australia as I come from. I know him very well and he's an extremely able competent and, by the way, an extraordinarily decent man and a very honourable person.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of whether it was his idea or whether it was Michael Howard's idea, everything we read about the policy the Conservatives are adjusting, in terms of immigration, says that it was really inspired by what has been very successful in your country, which is, which is, they say a quota on the one hand of asylum seekers and reduction, halving in this case,

Michael Howard talked about, halving the number of immigrants. Is that roughly speaking your policy?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well I, you know, I'm obviously going to walk right away from any British political controversies but let me -

DAVID FROST: Oh no ... talk about what -

ALEXANDER DOWNER: - tell me what we - we take about 120,000 migrants a year. Remember Australia's population is about a third of that of the UK, so that's the equivalent of you talking 360, around 360,000 migrants a year.

And what we say is that if people want to migrate to Australia they can do so, apply through the normal processes. We also have a refugee quota. We take 12,000 refugees a year. If people arrive illegally in Australia and they claim asylum, we detain them while their application is processed. If they are found genuinely to be refugees then we allow them to stay, that's our obligation under the UN convention.

But if they are found not to be refugees, despite having pretended they were, if they are found to have been deceiving our immigration authorities then of course they can appeal through our refugee review tribunal and our courts but in the end we tell them they have to leave the country. If they refuse to leave, we hold them in detention until they do leave. So it's that aspect of our policy which is tough.

But look our view is, if you have a strong immigration programme - we're very much in favour of immigration, we're a nation that's built on the back of immigration - if we have a strong and coherent policy, then we can build public support and confidence in immigration and if people try to come illegally and they're not refugees well then we send them away.

DAVID FROST: But - and in terms of the people coming into the country, that's very clear what you do about getting those who fail to pass the test, but most of the people who, with immigration coming in, are skilled workers, I mean rather than unskilled workers.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Most, yes, up to 120,000, I think I'm right in saying, about 70,000 are skilled workers, the rest are, other than refugees, people who come on family reunions. I mean, look, some of those people are Australians who, like me, came to Britain, met an English girl and married her and brought her back to Australia.

But, and there are other family reunion arrangements, often humanitarian types of arrangements for families. So, the emphasis, though, is particularly on skilled migrants who can make a social and economic contribution to the country.

DAVID FROST: And do you think your friend Lynton could do a real job for Michael Howard?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well it's not really for me to comment. You know, I worked with the Blair government here and I have to tell you in the years that we've been dealing with Tony Blair, and I deal with Jack Straw, we've had a simply excellent relationship and done some big things together, particularly most recently in Iraq, and we have a very close relationship as you can understand with Britain so the last thing I want to do is -

DAVID FROST: Is to come down on one side or the other.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, you know, I was a student here many years ago and I belonged to the Tory Party, I shouldn't be disingenuous, but I've had a very close relationship with the Blair government.

DAVID FROST: But you are prepared, even though it's taking place in England, you are prepared to say that you will be supporting Australia in the Test series.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's going to be very exciting because I think there's no doubt Australia and England are now the two best teams. I think we'll have the disadvantage of playing away -


ALEXANDER DOWNER: - but we have the advantage of having the best team.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much for being with us. Well there, a prediction, an exclusive prediction about the Ashes series just coming up.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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