27 January 2009
Interview: ABC2 TV News Breakfast, with Joe O'Brien
Subjects: Visit to Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Japanese whaling, humanitarian assistance for Gaza.
O'BRIEN: The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, is about to travel to Ethiopia to attend the Foreign Ministers meeting of the African Union. It's the first time an Australian Foreign Minister has attended the meeting.
Stephen Smith joins us now from the ABC's Perth newsroom; Perth where it's very early in the morning. Thanks for joining us, Minister.
SMITH: Good morning, Joe.
O'BRIEN: Now, the first time an Australian Foreign Minister has attended such a meeting. I guess the first question is, why go?
SMITH: Well, Australia's relationship with Africa, both the nation-states of Africa and the continent itself, need to be, in our view, substantially enhanced. We have a growing economic relationship with the continent of Africa. We've now got the minerals and petroleum resources industry of Australia very, very active in Africa.
And frankly, the people to people contact and the economic contacts, have gotten ahead of the government to government contacts.
We've got nearly 10,000 African students in Australia studying. We've got a large number of Australians in the continent who live there and work there, and we think that our relationships need to be substantially enhanced. And we think there's a lot that Australia can bring to the continent to advance it's economic and social interests.
O'BRIEN: Is going to this meeting also an important step in Australia gaining a spot on the UN Security Council in 2013-14?
SMITH: Well, whether we were running for a Security Council spot or not, and whatever the timetable of that, our very strong view is that it's essential that we enhance these relationships.
Historically, it's been the case that Australia has had a good relationship with South Africa, with other countries in southern Africa and also parts to the north, closer to the Mediterranean. But there's a whole raft of nation-states and areas of Africa where we've let our relationship slip, or where we haven't pursued that engagement as vigorously as we should.
So, irrespective of the Security Council candidature, it's in Australia's national interest to pursue these economic, and social, and diplomatic ties.
We're very strongly committed - as you would know - to helping Africa achieve its Millennium Development Goals. So, we think there's a lot that Australia can bring in terms of our own areas of expertise: whether it's food security, whether it's child or maternal health, whether it is agricultural products generally.
But also, not just in development assistance or achieving Millennium Development Goals, but as I said earlier, we now have substantial economic contact between Australia and the continent of Africa through the minerals and petroleum resources industry. Australia is a world-class competitor in that area, so there are plenty of economic opportunities, as well as opportunities to help advance Africa's social and economic progress.
O'BRIEN: Zimbabwe is obviously an important issue of the moment. The situation there seems to just be dragging on and on. Neighbouring countries, we hear over and over, are the crucial factor in this in terms of getting a peaceful outcome there.
Who are you going to be talking to about the Zimbabwe issue when you're there, and what are you going to be telling them?
SMITH: Well, the chairperson of the commission, of the Foreign Ministers African Union Commission, Jean Ping, has made it clear that he sees the Zimbabwe issue as being a key part of this African Union summit of Foreign Ministers.
And as we speak, we've got the Southern African Development Community holding talks in Pretoria between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai. And we very much continue to urge and hope that those talks come to a conclusion.
Australia's view for some time has been that the best solution is for Mr Mugabe to simply walk off the stage. But in the absence of that, it's absolutely essential that the political agreement for a government of national union - which was struck some three or four months ago - is brought to fruition with Mr Tsvangirai having an important part in that process, to go some way towards reflecting the will of the Zimbabwean people.
So, I expect that Africa will be discussed at the summit, but I also expect that as I have bilateral conversations with my Foreign Ministerial colleagues, that that will be one of the issues that I raise, and one of the issues that we discuss.
O'BRIEN: I understand Robert Mugabe will be sending a delegate to this meeting. Will you be holding talks with that delegate?
SMITH: Well, at this stage I've got no proposals or suggestion that I'll be meeting with Mr Mugabe's Foreign Minister. Mr Tsvangirai, there are suggestions that he may go as well. If Mr Tsvangirai is there then I would happily have a meeting with Mr Tsvangirai.
But our view of the brutal Mugabe regime is of long-standing and well-known, so I won't be proposing to meet with the Zimbabwe Foreign Minister, or Mr Mugabe's Foreign Minister.
And I just note as well that over the weekend, the European Union has indicated an enhancement of its economic sanctions so far as the Mugabe regime is concerned. We welcome that very much. Just before the end of last year, Australia also enhanced its financial and travel sanctions against individuals and companies associated with the brutal Mugabe regime, so we welcome very much the European Union enhanced sanctions.
And we also continue to urge the Southern African Development Community holding talks in Pretoria today to bring those to a successful conclusion.
O'BRIEN: Just turning to another issue now, Minister. There are reports this morning that Australian officials have been involved in talks with Japan to possibly set up a deal where Japan could take more whales in the Northern Pacific, in return for staying out of the Southern Ocean.
Were Australian officials involved in those talks, and would you support such an initiative?
SMITH: Well, the Australian Government's objective is that Japan cease commercial whaling, or so-called lethal scientific whaling. And our priority is for that whaling to cease in the Great Southern Oceans.
There have been discussions at the IWC, the International Whaling Commission - and my colleague Peter Garrett has made this clear overnight - there have been discussions at the IWC as one would expect. These are a long way from any formal proposal, or anything that the Australian Government has agreed to.
So, lots of discussions and lots of suggestions are made when you have a group like the International Whaling Commission. My understanding is that any formal proposals will be brought by the Chairman of the IWC to a meeting in March. So there's plenty of water to flow under the bridge between now and then.
But yes, these discussions, I understand it, have been taking place. But they're a long way from any formal proposal or formal suggestion, or anything that the Australian Government has agreed to. Our priority remains Japan ceasing whaling in the Great Southern Oceans, and our overall objective is for whaling to end completely.
O'BRIEN: I notice that you point out there that the priority is the Southern Ocean. In that light, would you be comfortable with a proposal that involved Japan staying out of the Southern Ocean in return for more kills in the Northern Pacific?
SMITH: Well, as I say, our overall objective, our long-term objective, is for the Japanese to cease whaling altogether. Our priority is the Great Southern Oceans. And as I say, yes there have been discussions, as I understand it, amongst officials at the IWC about a range of possible suggestions or proposals; nothing formal has been suggested.
As I understand it, the chairman of the IWC Commission, Mr Hogarth, is required or needs to bring any such suggestions forward to the next intersessional meeting of the IWC in March of this year. So there's no formal proposal as such.
But it's quite clear, from reports that we've seen coming out of the IWC, that suggestions of this nature have been made at officials level, but that's a long way from the Australian Government agreeing to them.
O'BRIEN: On another issue, Minister, the Australian Government has recently announced increased aid for the people of Gaza.
After his election, Barack Obama came out more strongly in support of the plight of the people of Gaza and he called for Israel to open the borders. Are you similarly changing your rhetoric on the issue of Gaza now?
SMITH: Well, no. The Australian Government's position on Gaza has been exactly the same from day one: which was we believe that Israel's right to exist in peace as a nation-state ought to be respected, but also when it came to civilian casualties in war, we had to ensure that nation-states and other organisations respected humanitarian law, respected the rights of civilians, and we urged all concerned to do their best to avoid civilian casualties.
O'BRIEN: What about that issue now of Israel opening the borders?
SMITH: Well, unfortunately we saw very many civilian casualties and that was a great tragedy; which was why we've indicated in the course of this year $10 million worth of humanitarian assistance.
We've been urging all concerned to respect the resolution of the United Nations Security Council 1860, which ensures not just that there's a durable and long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, but also that humanitarian assistance is rendered.
So, we certainly want to ensure that every assistance is given to render humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza. And that's why I've announced overnight that we're effectively doubling the contribution to humanitarian assistance in Gaza that we've announced this year in the course of the current conflict.
And two million of that additional $5 million will be for Australian NGOs. And our Parliamentary Secretary for Development Assistance, Bob McMullan, will be in detailed discussions with Australian NGOs in the course of this week to determine the precise details of those.
But we certainly, very strongly, urge all concerned to ensure that this humanitarian assistance can be rendered to the people of Gaza.
O'BRIEN: Okay, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, thanks very much for talking to us this morning from Perth. And good luck with that trip to Africa.
SMITH: Thanks very much, Joe. Thank you.
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