2CC Breakfast - interview with Mark Parton

Canberra

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

Subjects: Syria, Fiji

25 February 2014

MARK PARTON: I'm pleased to say that my guest this morning is the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop who joins me on the line right now. Good morning.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning. How are you today?

MARK PARTON: Excellent. Thanks for coming on this morning, appreciate your time. I wanted to start off by talking Syria which as far as I'm concerned is one of the biggest humanitarian crises which is facing this planet at the moment. Some of the things that are going on in this place just blow your mind and I know you've, well, as Foreign Minister been able to see so much of the human carnage. It's shocking isn't it?

JULIE BISHOP: It is appalling, it's one of the worst humanitarian disasters in living memory. But Australia is able to play a significant part on the international stage because we're a temporary member of the Security Council in addition to the five permanent members, and recently we've been able to assist in the negotiation of a resolution, in fact we co-authored the resolution – and worked with other Security Council members to secure its passage which will send a really strong signal to the Syrian regime. It's about tackling this humanitarian crisis with the aim of making a difference for the people of Syria who are suffering so much.

MARK PARTON: And so it makes demands like that the Syrian regime must cease deliberate attacks including through aerial bombing and the use of barrel bombs against the Syrian people, to end sieges that have trapped more than a quarter million civilians and end the use of starvation as a weapon of war and to facilitate access for humanitarian assistance including across conflict lines in border areas. It's wonderful stuff. It's all there on paper. Is it going to make a skerrick of difference?

JULIE BISHOP: Well it does send a very strong signal to the Syrian regime because it was adopted by all of the permanent members which includes China and Russia and that's important.

You mention some of the actions that it demands be ceased, the one particularly on aerial bombing is so very important because of this reference to barrel bombs. These are improvised explosive devices used by the Syrian air force. They are literally barrels filled with explosives and dropped from helicopters and they have an utterly devastating impact.

And so we're calling for the end to these kind of bombings, calling for the seizures to be lifted so that the civilians can be freed, and really importantly, giving access for United Nations agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance.

So we have co-authored this resolution, we've managed to get all members of the Security Council to agree to it and you might know that there's been differences between a number of the actors on the Security Council over Syria and I think this is a step forward. But as you say the question now is how we manage to put this into effect.

MARK PARTON: And indeed if it doesn't…

JULIE BISHOP: We'll be watching very closely to see that the Syrian regime complies with these demands because it is a Security Council resolution.

MARK PARTON: And so what if they don't? Because I don't think they will and I don't think you believe they will.

JULIE BISHOP: Well in fact because Russia is Syria's most significant backer and because Russia has joined in this resolution, I do have some hope that the Syrian regime will see that it must act, otherwise it will be utterly and absolutely condemned by the international community including Russia which has been to date its biggest backer.

MARK PARTON: Okay. We've had so much of a discussion in this country about queue jumpers, about boat people and your man Scott Morrison by the looks has succeeded in stopping the boats. We haven't had one for 70-days odd. When are we as a nation going to turn our attention to Syria and open our doors to more people there that are seeking asylum? Because these people if there are any genuine refugees in the world, that's where they are.

JULIE BISHOP: Well currently the UNHCR are working through the whole issue of refugees. They are leaving Syria, they're going to surrounding countries and there's a huge effort underway to support refugees in Jordan, in other countries. There's an estimation that there are about 9.3 million people in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance - that's about half the population – and about another 2.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries. Australia has given almost $111 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the crisis and so our support is being used in the neighbouring countries where the Syrians are currently living as refugees.

But hopefully what will happen is when this horrible crisis, this conflict comes to an end, the people will be able to return home from the neighbouring countries in which they're currently living they'll be able to return home. But we're most certainly providing funding, we're most certainly providing all the assistance we can, indeed we're also providing funding to assist in the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile that was announced in January.

MARK PARTON: Because with respect it sounds like a bit of a fantasy to me that these people are going to be returning home anytime soon to a wonderful country that was anything like what they knew before I think.

JULIE BISHOP: No I'm not suggesting that at all, but I'm saying the ultimate aim of refugees is to go home and the people who are fleeing Syria now want to return home. Of course Australia will do what it can. We're a very generous country when it comes to humanitarian and refugee settlement – I think second after Norway as one of the most generous per capita resettlement countries for humanitarian and refugee purposes - of course as long as it's done through the orderly process of the United Nations.

MARK PARTON: Alright, let's briefly touch on Fiji. I know you've been there in recent days and there's certainly been a change in the feeling, the vibe of the relationship between Australia and Fiji. Why?

JULIE BISHOP: It's time for us to rebuild the political ties after the military coup in Fiji. That was back in 2006. We imposed sanctions at the time, but the Fijian regime has committed to going to an election at the end of the year - sorry, by the end of September this year. Prime Minister Bainimarama says he's stepping down as the military leader and he'll contest the election as a civilian.

And I think in that context, all these years later, given that Australia is the largest source of foreign investment, we are the largest source of overseas aid, we are the largest source of tourists to Fiji – I mean the Australian people are voting with their feet - they're going to Fiji in record numbers, it's time we rebuilt the ties ahead of this election.

MARK PARTON: So all's forgiven in terms of if you want a run a military coup and take over the country, after five years we'll just accept?

JULIE BISHOP: No, of course not. We think that significant changes have now been made in order to embrace democracy. They have appointed independent electoral commissioners. They're putting in place an electoral framework that will work towards a free and fair election and so they've also opened voter registration so that people in Fiji can have a vote and I understand that about 550,000 people out of 800,000 have registered to vote.

So the people of Fiji are ready for an election and we're ready to give them that opportunity to elect a government of their choice.

MARK PARTON: I've got a bit more time for Frank just because he's a West Coast Eagles man.

JULIE BISHOP: [Laughs] [inaudible]

MARK PARTON: Did you really present him with a West Coast Eagles jumper?

JULIE BISHOP: I certainly did and it was signed by Nic Naitanui a six-foot-eight Fijian player, he's a champion. I met up with Nic Naitanui here in Canberra a couple of days before I left and I said I was going to Fiji, that we were seeking to engage Fiji back into the family, back into the Pacific community, and so he signed a guernsey to give to Frank Bainimarama. The Naitanui family are well known in Fiji…

MARK PARTON: Of course.

JULIE BISHOP: I think it was a nice gesture because there's such affection between the Australian people and the people of Fiji.

MARK PARTON: Thank you so much for coming on the program this morning. Appreciate your time.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks Mark, bye.

MARK PARTON: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

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