Australia Network, New Delhi - Interview with Stephanie March

Subjects: Relationship with India, New Colombo Plan, nuclear cooperation agreement talks, gift of patrol boats to Sri Lanka, fake passports, relationship with Indonesia.

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

18 November 2013

STEPHANIE MARCH: The Tony Abbott Government has said it's open for business. What is the Coalition doing to try and increase investment from India to Australia?

JULIE BISHOP: My visit here to India within three months of taking office is designed to send a signal to India that we want a much closer and deeper and broader relationship than in the past, particularly in the areas of trade and investment. And we are working to secure a free trade agreement with India, we are concluding a nuclear civilian supply agreement, and overall our message is that we're open for Indian business in particular.

STEPHANIE MARCH: You say that you'd like to see more diverse investment from India in Australia, what particularly are you looking at there?

JULIE BISHOP: Well currently there's about ten billion dollars worth of investment from Indian companies in Australia, essentially in the mining and resource sector and that's very welcome, in coal and in Queensland and in Western Australia. But we believe there are other areas where the Indian investment community could find attractive investments in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, IT, financial sector. And, likewise, Australian investment into India, I've met with a number of Australian businesses who are taking the opportunity to invest in infrastructure here in India, the financial sector, the communications sector. So there are great synergies that I believe can be enhanced.

STEPHANIE MARCH: In meeting with Indian business leaders in Mumbai earlier on your visit, my understanding is that …a lot of the business leaders I've spoken to…some of their concerns about investing in Australia are issues- red tape, green tape, particularly the high dollar. What have you been proposing to them to address those issues?

JULIE BISHOP: Well in informing them that Prime Minister's opening words on election night were that 'Australia is under new management and open for business' I've been able to inform them of a number of policies that we will be implementing including the abolition of the carbon tax, which was an unnecessary burden on business, the abolition of the mining tax, again a burden on business and a tax that was detrimental to our international competitiveness. Our commitment to lift a billion dollars of red tape each and every year out of the Australian economy, our commitment to a commission of audit to identify savings and ensuring government is more effective and more efficient. And also the one stop shop approval for environmental projects in particular has gone over very well. Companies have been bogged down in state and federal environmental approvals and the news that the Abbott Government intends to streamline that process has gone over very well indeed.

STEPHANIE MARCH: In terms of the ongoing relationship. You've said you'd like to see it deepen. A lot of the economic and trade issues can seem quite transactional. What's going on to further the strategic relationship between the two countries?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe that education is the key to deepening the people-to-people links. As you know, Australia receives a significant number of Indian students into our higher education institutions and VET sector every year and they're very welcome and we appreciate the fact that Indian parents are happy to send their students, their children, to Australia and we welcome that. What we're going to do is reverse that, and through the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan, which provides Australian undergrads with the opportunity to study at universities in our region, we hope that India will become a partner country with us, and over time we'll see hundreds, and hopefully more, thousands of young Australians taking up an opportunity to study in India. Learn more about the country, learn another language, come back to Australia with insights and ideas about the Australia-India relationship, and hopefully form lifelong networks and friendships here.

STEPHANIE MARCH: The New Colombo Plan has been progressed in a number of other countries. How far along are along with India and how do you see that becoming a reality.

JULIE BISHOP: We have embarked upon a pilot program for 2014 to test the business models, because our New Colombo Plan doesn't only involve study at a university in the region, it also includes an internship with business operating in the host country. So there are quite a number of issues that need to be considered, not just course accreditation, but also student visas and the like. So we are holding a pilot in four destinations in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan in 2014. Thereafter, we will be inviting other countries to join into the New Colombo Plan and I hope Australia and India are able to conclude a partnership in relationship to that as soon as possible, sometime beyond 2015.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Onto the nuclear cooperation agreement talks, as you mention they're ongoing. The sticking point at the moment seems to be Australia's desire for IAEA+ guarantees, so safeguards that go beyond what the International Atomic Energy Agency provides when it comes to accounting for the uranium, where it ends up. But India says it doesn't have the capacity to provide that level of scrutiny. What do you see as the outcome of this stalemate?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm confident that we'll be able to conclude an agreement. India does have an additional protocol with the IAEA and we'll be working from that basis, so negotiations are underway. We have a third round of negotiations coming up at the end of this month, and both Foreign Minister Khurshid and I have resolved to ensure that the agreement is concluded as soon as possible. Foreign Minister Khurshid and I met in Perth recently and we discussed the agreement and are both keen to progress, to conclude the position as soon as possible.

STEPHANIE MARCH: If India isn't able though to provide those extra safeguards, that's something Australia has in every other of its other nuclear cooperation agreements, would Australia be prepared to accept a slightly weaker agreement with India that's based primarily on IAEA guarantees?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the negotiations are still underway, so I'm not going to get ahead of the negotiations and consider hypotheticals. We have our negotiating team coming here shortly and I'm confident we'll be able to conclude an agreement that satisfies Australian standards.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Would you accept though, a weaker agreement than Australia has had in the past with other countries?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm not going to speculate on what we would negotiate, but we have a negotiating position and we are very keen to work with India to conclude an agreement as soon as possible.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Can you guarantee it wouldn't be weaker than current agreements?

JULIE BISHOP: We'll always act in Australia's national interest.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Moving to the gifting of the patrol boats to Sri Lanka at the weekend, what protocols has Australia negotiated to guarantee the boats will be used solely for humanitarian reasons and not trying to blockade people who fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka?

JULIE BISHOP: We have a very cooperative relationship with the Sri Lankan Government. The Sri Lankan Government and Australia are both determined to stamp out the people smuggling trade. These are criminal syndicates that are trading on people's lives, and we've seen more than a thousand people die at sea as a result of paying money to a people smuggler and then getting on an unseaworthy boat. We are determined to stamp out that practice and the Sri Lankan Government is working with us to achieve that and they've been very cooperative, and we've already seen a number of attempts thwarted, essentially saving peoples' lives.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Do you believe though there is a risk that these boats could be used to stop people fleeing genuine persecution in Sri Lanka?

JULIE BISHOP: The boats will be used to assist us in our efforts to ensure people do not get aboard unseaworthy boats and come to Australia. They're putting their lives at risk. We've already seen people die at sea as a result of it. So, our efforts to stamp out the people smuggling trade will go hand-in-hand with the efforts of the Sri Lankan Government to do the same.

STEPHANIE MARCH: What do you propose though for someone who is facing persecution in Sri Lanka do other than get on a boat? They can't walk into their local UNHCR office, they can't walk into the Australian High Commission and apply for a visa without furthering their risk of persecution.

JULIE BISHOP: There's nothing to stop them from coming into the Australian High Commission, there's nothing to stop them going 30km to Tamil Nadu in India, and I would say, if anyone feared persecution the last thing they should be doing is paying a people smuggler and getting on a boat to take a very, very dangerous sea journey to Australia. They will put their lives and the lives of their family at risk. There are other means if people fear persecution; I've spoken to the Indian Foreign Minister; they could go 30km into Tamil Nadu.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Earlier in the year, four Sri Lankan navy members were arrested and are believed to have been charged with involvement in people smuggling rings, we understand that there were communications with one of those officers and Australian officials at the time. How confident are you now that the Sri Lankan navy can be trusted and that those involved in trying to assist you in stopping the boats are not involved in also proliferating the people smuggling trade?

JULIE BISHOP: This is an example where the Sri Lankan Government has shown it is cracking down on corruption and allegations of corruption. And the fact that some navy officers or navy personal have been charged highlights how far they're prepared to go to cooperate with Australia to stamp out the people smuggling trade. I think it's a very good sign that this has come to light and that charges have been laid. I welcome it.

STEPHANIE MARCH: There are reports out today that fake passports are being sold to people smugglers with fake Australian visas inside in Bahrain. Is this something you'll be following up with Bahrain?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm confident that there is great integrity in our passport system and if there are any allegations of course we'd follow them up but I have great confidence in the integrity of the Australian passport system.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Another issue that's arisen today is reports that materials from the Defence Signals Directorate showing Indonesian President SBY's phone has been monitored, along with his wife and other senior ministers. Why is Australia listening to phone calls being made by the Indonesian President?

JULIE BISHOP: It's been a longstanding practice of successive Australian Governments not to make any comment on intelligence matters, and I intend to abide by that longstanding practice and principle.

STEPHANIE MARCH: More broadly though, is it an act of a friendly neighbour to be spying on, or tapping the phones of, leaders of a friendly nation?

JULIE BISHOP: I won't be commenting on matters going to intelligence.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Are you concerned at all about what this revelation and previous recent revelations about the possible spying activities are having on the relationship with Indonesia?

JULIE BISHOP: We have a very close relationship with Indonesia. The Abbott Government has placed Indonesia as one of our highest foreign policy priorities. The Prime Minister's first overseas visit as Prime Minister was to Jakarta and we've expressed the hope that successive Prime Ministers will follow in that practice of making their first overseas official visit to Jakarta. I've met with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on at least seven, I think it might be eight, occasions in the eight weeks that I've been Foreign Minister. So there are many areas of cooperation. Indeed, Foreign Minister Natalegawa and I did a stocktake the other day and we worked out that there are about 60 areas where Australia and Indonesia are cooperating, from agriculture, to environment and education and federal police and so it goes on and on, scientific research, our collaborations, our partnerships, our policy forums, our exchanges of personnel are vast and we intend to build on that and ensure that Australia-Indonesia relationships are as close as they can be.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Have you spoken to him since the revelations of spying activity?

JULIE BISHOP: I meet with Foreign Minister Natalegawa on a regular basis. As I said, I think I've had eight separate meetings with him in the nearly nine weeks I've been the Foreign Minister. So, as you can see, we converse and communicate on a regular basis.

STEPHANIE MARCH: He has aired his frustrations publicly about these revelations. Has he shared those with you?

JULIE BISHOP: I've had discussions with Foreign Minister Natalegawa but as I've said to you earlier in this interview, I won't be commenting on intelligence matters.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Do you see the relationship now is just as robust as before these revelations came out?

JULIE BISHOP: The relationship is improving because we are working to make good the damage that was done over the live cattle ban. We're certainly working very closely on people smuggling issues. We don't want to see a repeat of the Oceanic Viking situation that occurred under the Rudd Government, and I believe that once we can get over the live cattle issue and return the level of trade to pre-ban levels then the relationship will continue to be on a very sound footing, a very strong footing. So, of course there are always challenges and difficulties in a relationship. But, we both see the benefit of deeper, closer, stronger, engagement. The areas that I mentioned to you are very important to both Indonesia and to Australia and we'll continue to work hard to ensure that our relationship is as good as it can be.

STEPHANIE MARCH: So you say that there are always difficult parts to a relationship, but do you see this as a difficult part of the relationship at this point in time?

JULIE BISHOP: There are always challenges in any relationship. That's why they need constant nurturing and attention. And that's why I keep in close communication with Foreign Minister Natalegawa and the Prime Minister with President Yudhoyono. Our Ministers are visiting Indonesia. Minister Andrew Robb will be there on trade and investment talks and we'll continue to work closely with our counterpart ministers to ensure that the relationship is flourishing and is in the best interests of both countries. That's what we're seeking to achieve.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Are you worried there could be any fallout from these revelations in any area of cooperation, particularly in the area of people smuggling.

JULIE BISHOP: We are continuing to work very closely with the Indonesian Government. We appreciate the cooperation they've provided to us in relation to people smuggling. As President Yudhoyono said, both Australia and Indonesia are victims of these criminal syndicates and we are going to work closely together, bilaterally and under the Bali Process to ensure that we can stamp it out.

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