Sky News Viewpoint, interview with Chris Kenny

Subjects: Thai elections, relationship with Indonesia, Australia Network, conduct of the ABC, Peter Greste, WA shark policy.

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

3 February 2014

CHRIS KENNY: We've managed to get one of the nation's leading politicians and top newsmakers. Here's an interview I recorded with her a short time ago.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, welcome back to Viewpoint.

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you Chris, good to be with you.

CHRIS KENNY: I want to start off in our region and of course the elections going ahead today in Thailand despite weeks of violent protests including deaths. What's your latest on the violence in Thailand and what's Australia's diplomatic stance on what's going on there?

JULIE BISHOP: We are very concerned to hear reports of violence overnight and of course the elections are being held today. But I'm concerned that even though the elections are underway, it won't resolve the political impasse that we have seen in recent times. In fact our understanding is that even if the elections go ahead the Parliament still will not reach a quorum, that's something like 475 seats out of 500, so it seems that the political and legal disputes will continue for some time.

We've been stressing the importance of democratic processes, of the rule of law and avoiding violence and we've certainly been warning Australian travellers to stay away from the protests and certainly stay away from the polling booths today because of course we have had these reports of outbreaks of violence.

CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, there'll be a lot of Australians in Thailand no doubt so they'll need to be very careful. But are you worried that democracy's under threat in this country?

JULIE BISHOP: It is a very volatile political situation and it's also exceedingly partisan. There have been talks about an interim government or a people's council but I can't see there being any agreement or bipartisanship between the Democrat Party and the Government, so it is a disturbing situation.

We are concerned about the safety of Australians there. That's why we're asking them to stay away from gatherings and demonstrations and the polling booths. But we urge the Thai Government and the Opposition to stick to the democratic processes, ensure that an election can be held that represents the will of the people of Thailand, but it is still very volatile.

CHRIS KENNY: Let's go further south now and we heard a week or so ago that in response to Australia's accidental incursions into Indonesian waters, our navy's incursions into Indonesian waters that Jakarta was sending vessels south. What's your latest update on those vessels? Has Indonesia sent vessels south of Java? Are they there to look out for the Australian Navy or are they actually helping to combat people smuggling?

JULIE BISHOP: My understanding is that any support from the Indonesian Navy in terms of preventing the people smugglers applying their trade will be welcomed by Australia. And I don't have the operational details of what the Indonesian Navy is doing, but most certainly we want to cooperate with Indonesia to prevent people smugglers, paying Indonesian crews, to put people on Indonesian boats, to leave Indonesian ports to come to Australia, and we've made that quite clear that we see this as an issue.

CHRIS KENNY: We haven't seen much of that cooperation in the past. Do you actually believe that's what they're doing now or they're actually on the lookout for Australian Navy vessels crossing into their territory?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that issue was inadvertent and we apologised for it so it won't happen again. We've put in place certain protocols so that it won't happen again and I hope that Indonesia understands that.

But if Indonesia is sending any ships into its southern waters, well then we would certainly welcome that because they would be able to work with us to prevent these boats from leaving Indonesian shores.

And we all know that this is a very dangerous journey. We've seen about 1000 people lose their lives at sea and the Australian Government has made it plain from the time we were in opposition that we will stop the people smuggling trade and we'll certainly stop people putting their lives at risk and making this dangerous journey to Australia.

CHRIS KENNY: We know that as part of that operation the Navy or Customs vessels have been turning back boats. We know that from of course asylum seekers who have been turned back and arrived back in Indonesia and we've heard it confirmed by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

Can you confirm that whenever boats have been turned back that Australia has through diplomatic channels notified Indonesia, has cooperated and let Indonesia know exactly what's going on?

JULIE BISHOP: Chris, I'm not going into the details of operational matters but I can confirm that we have adopted a 'no surprises' policy with Indonesia which means that we keep Indonesia informed. I most certainly keep my counterpart informed as does Scott Morrison, as does General Campbell and others. So we promised Indonesia that it would be a 'no surprises' policy and lines of communication remain open.

CHRIS KENNY: So we could take from that that certainly in the interest of good diplomatic relations but especially in the interest of safety, the Indonesians have known exactly when asylum seekers have been heading back their way and where they've been heading?

JULIE BISHOP: As I said the lines of communication are open and we continue to communicate with our counterparts so that there are no surprises.

CHRIS KENNY: Okay, when was the last time you spoke to your counterpart in Indonesia Marty Natalegawa, and when is the next time you will see him face to face? Because obviously there's this underlying tension not just because of the border control measures, but because of the spying revelations and you really need to get that relationship back on track.

JULIE BISHOP: I am in constant communication with Foreign Minister Natalegawa. Indeed I believe he said recently that we are in touch with each other all the time. Of course he's been travelling overseas, I've been travelling overseas, but we remain in communication and we are in the midst of planning another meeting.

I note today that Labor is trying to suggest that all of the current tensions in the relationship are as a result of actions of the Abbott Government. But of course I remind you Chris that the source of the current situation is indeed the release of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden that relate to alleged intelligence activities from some years ago.

CHRIS KENNY: And in response to that you're negotiating a new agreement with Indonesia to try and take – get the relationship back on track and deal with those intelligence issues. What stage is that at now?

JULIE BISHOP: You will recall that I travelled to Indonesia in December and had a very productive meeting with Dr Natalegawa and we agreed a process that we would undertake which included agreeing a joint understanding on various matters, particularly involving our sovereignty, pursuant to the Lombok Treaty.

We've sent a draft to Indonesia and we're waiting for Indonesia to come back with their comments and then we'll progress to the next stage which will be acceptance of a draft understanding by our respective leaders.

CHRIS KENNY: I imagine in the ways of diplomacy you'll be happy for that to take as long as possible just for the heat to go out of the issue. Do you expect Tony Abbott to meet with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the Indonesian President face to face before the President leaves his post at the upcoming election?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm not sure what the President's plans are between now and the presidential election. Most certainly there are legislative elections in April in Indonesia so a lot of the domestic focus within Indonesia will be on those elections and then the presidential election is later in the year. But I'm sure that if an opportunity arises, then Prime Minister Abbott would take that opportunity.

CHRIS KENNY: Staying overseas now, I want to take up the cause of Australian journalist Peter Greste, a former colleague of mine. Of course he's in custody in Egypt, has been for some time now facing charges along with other journalists. What is Australia doing in concert with the United States, the UK, perhaps the UN, to get these journalists out? The way they've been treated is obviously an outrage.

JULIE BISHOP: Well it's a very volatile situation in Egypt as you will appreciate, but against our values and the way we see the world this action is unwarranted and very harsh. But the Egyptian government has made a decision and we have to work with the Government of Egypt to ensure we can get the best outcome for Peter Greste and the other journalists.

I have spoken to the Egyptian ambassador in Canberra, I met with him and registered our concerns, particularly the fact that our ambassador in Cairo hadn't been able to meet with the Prosecutor General. Subsequently I had a telephone call with the Egyptian Foreign Minister and he's a very experienced diplomat and politician and we had a very candid discussion and I conveyed to him our concerns and also the fact that our ambassador wished to meet with the Prosecutor General. That was subsequently arranged and I impressed upon the Foreign Minister our desire to see Peter Greste initially conditionally released, but that we want to see him home as soon as possible.

In the meantime, our ambassador has met with the Prosecutor General and has an outline of the legal proceedings which we have conveyed to Mr Greste's family, and our consul officials are in constant contact with him to ensure that his health and wellbeing is okay.

Interestingly our diplomatic officials were able to sit through the interviews and the questioning of Peter Greste. So we have had access to him and we hope that that will continue. But we're doing all we can to get him home to his family as soon as possible.

CHRIS KENNY: Yeah, let's hope that pressure pays off. A very difficult situation for him.

I want to bring you back to Australia now and a couple of domestic issues. And firstly, a lot of controversy about the ABC in allegations they ran ten days ago or more are giving credence to and prominence to horrible claims against our navy, suggesting our Navy had deliberately mistreated and tortured asylum seekers. Now, even the ABC's reporting since then undermines those allegations. Do you believe that the national broadcaster owes our Defence personnel an apology?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe that it's now evident that within the ABC, there are concerns that they were not reporting the facts but they were embellishing or indeed promoting a particular view that could not be substantiated. In those circumstances, I would expect the ABC to do the right thing and apologise to the Navy because they were terrible claims that were broadcast into the region, and this brings me to the question of the Australian Network.

The Australian Network is meant to be promoting Australia into the region. In fact the ABC has a contractual agreement to produce quality content that will promote Australia and promote Australian values and our image into the region. It's meant to be a tool of public diplomacy.

Well when you have what appears to be unsubstantiated claims made about our navy that would give a very negative view of Australia in the region, I question whether the Australian Network is fulfilling its contractual obligations.

CHRIS KENNY: Well, I was going to ask you about that next. Obviously that contract is under review now. There's a lot of suggestions you might put it out again, revise it, reform it. I should note of course that Sky News, who I work for tendered for that contract and won it twice before it was given over to the ABC so obviously had a stake in that. But what I would put to you is that this whole contract is really an indulgence for Australian taxpayers that in fact the best thing to do would be to scrap it altogether.

Is there any evidence whatsoever that the service is actually promoting Australia in the region or is it more – it's actually watched mainly by expats so they can get a bit of news from home and sport?

JULIE BISHOP: Well Chris, let me make a couple of points. Given the concern that the Auditor-General raised about the tender process when Labor awarded a ten-year contract to the ABC against the recommendations of the experts, and given the concerns that I and others in the Coalition raised at the time about this botched tender and it was quite flawed, it should come as no surprise that we are reviewing this tender and in fact seeking legal advice about it.

My concern is that the ABC has a contractual obligation for the Australian network to be used as a tool of public diplomacy. Now, it's $20 – or over $20 million of taxpayers' funds each year. Compare that with the entire Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade public diplomacy budget, which is about $4 million each year, and I question whether taxpayers are getting the best value for money. Is this the best use of money for public diplomacy, particularly given the level of criticisms that I get from people in the region?

I understand the audience is very small, I understand the audience tends to be expats, but of course, Chris, you can get the ABC News in the region if you just lift the geo-block. I mean, you could – there's a technical way of getting the ABC News for free into the region, you don't have to spend...

CHRIS KENNY: Well this is – this is my point. In the ten years since this started, communications have been revolutionised. Isn't this just an unnecessary expense – $20 million a year of taxpayers' fund that could be – could go elsewhere, perhaps help get the budget back into surplus?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I believe that there is a need for funding for public diplomacy into our region, I think that's essential. What I have to look at is whether this is the best use of that money and whether we're getting the outcomes; are we getting a positive image of Australia portrayed into the region or given some of the recent incidents – for example, the Snowden allegations and now these allegations about the Navy's treatment of asylum seekers, is the ABC fulfilling its contractual agreement? And that's what I'm looking at at present.

CHRIS KENNY: But if you're sending news into the region, it can hardly be censored news.

JULIE BISHOP: Well – but news I understand and I'm just not suggesting that this is the technical answer but apparently if you lift the geo-block then ABC News can be into the region for free.

So the question is should Australian taxpayers' be funding $20 million a year or $220 million over ten years to the ABC to produce programming that apparently is not attracting a wide audience and is not promoting Australia in a positive light.

CHRIS KENNY: Alright. I want to finish up very local now. Back into your local electorate, in fact your local beach, Cottesloe, which is the epicentre at the moment of this national debate about shark culling. What's your position on the Barnett Government's plans now underway to cull sharks on Perth beaches? And do you think the focus is misguided or misdirected on Perth when we know that Queensland kills upwards of 500 sharks a year with hook lines and nets and in New South Wales where there's only nets used, at least 100 sharks a year killed in New South Wales as well. So east coast beaches are protected but apparently not Perth beaches.

JULIE BISHOP: Yes, that is a rather odd outcome, but I think it needs to be put in context. This is a very targeted, localised action to reduce the risks of people being taken by sharks, so it's a public safety measure.

And you mentioned Cottesloe Beach. Well, I remember when a swimmer was taken by a shark in the shallows of Cottesloe Beach just in front of the cafés and the bars where families and children and tourists are.

So this is a public safety issue and I think the Barnett Government has got it right; it's balanced the environmental concerns and the protection of sharks. But it's also taken into account the obligation that it owes, not only to the local people of Perth, the families and children who are at these beaches, but also the tourists.

Cottesloe is an iconic beach and tourists come to Perth in the summer to go down to Cottesloe Beach and have a swim, but the sharks are coming into the shallows and it's very dangerous.

So I think the Barnett Government has got the balance right and is being responsible in responding to a public safety concern.

CHRIS KENNY: Well, we've been around the world, Julie Bishop, and ended up in your own back yard and safety issues at your own local beach. Thanks very much for joining us on Viewpoint once again.

JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure Chris. Thank you.

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