JOHN MCGLUE: Now the Budget has dominated federal politics for the past week but I suspect my next guest has had just one eye on the selling of the budget and the controversy that has come in its aftermath.

She is the Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and there's lots happening overseas at the moment affecting Australia that I’m sure is grabbing her attention. Minister, welcome again to Drive, good to have you on the program.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks very much John, good to be with you.

JOHN MCGLUE: I’ll get to the Budget and student protests in a bit but I’d like to hear from you on your latest information on what exactly is happening Thailand.

JULIE BISHOP: Well John as you know the Royal Thai Army has imposed martial law across Thailand. I have spoken to our Ambassador in Bangkok and we are monitoring the situation on a constant basis through our Embassy in Bangkok – one of our largest embassies – we are going through the details and clarifying the situation as it evolves.

The military has said that this is not a coup because the caretaker government is still in office. The military has taken over the policing functions and we are following these events very closely, we have in fact been monitoring events in Thailand for quite some time with deep concern.

JOHN MCGLUE: What are you telling Australians in relation to going to Thailand to either do business there or especially to have holidays in Thailand?

JULIE BISHOP: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade regularly reviews and reissues where necessary travel advice for Australians. In relation to Thailand, we are urging Australians travelling to Thailand to exercise a high degree of caution due to the possibility of civil unrest.

We are asking people to register their travel on the Government’s Smartraveller website – smartraveller.gov.au – and we are asking people to take up travel insurance because you never know in a volatile situation - they might want the reassurance of travel insurance. We are asking people to avoid any protest or protest sites or political events and importantly to follow the instructions of local authorities. We want people to familiarise themselves with this information and register so that they can get regular updates from the Government.

It is a very difficult situation, we hope that an election will be held soon so that the political parties in Thailand can resolve their political differences, but it must be through peaceful democratic processes.

JOHN MCGLUE: Julie Bishop my colleague Ian Cameron made the throwaway remark yesterday that there’s been more martial law in Thailand than democracy. Now a throwaway comment it might be, but it does highlight the fragility of the political system in Thailand. What is your long term prognosis for the country and its politics?

JULIE BISHOP: Well Ian is right in the sense that there have been coups in the past, there has been martial law, I think this martial law is about 100 years old. The Royal Thai Army has exercised what is a very old law in Thailand, to impose martial law.

In fact John I remember as a university student travelling to Bangkok for my first overseas trip and there was a coup at the time, in fact there was a curfew and you weren’t allowed onto the streets at night and the military were very evident so even in my lifetime I have seen a number of coups here.

The difficulty here is there is a very strong anti-government sentiment, there is a very strong pro-government sentiment. So we’ve seen the anti-government protests, the pro-government rallies, they have intensified since Thailand’s Constitutional Court removed Prime Minister Shinawatra and a number of cabinet ministers from office on the seventh of May.

We hope that there will be a fair and peaceful election, we clearly hope that further violence will be avoided. Thailand is a great friend of Australia’s, we have a very close connection through trade, through tourism, and it is really troubling – deeply troubling – to see Thailand go through this volatile situation once more.

JOHN MCGLUE: It is eleven past four on Drive, you are with John McGlue 720 ABC Perth. My guest is Julie Bishop the Member for Curtin here in Perth and the Foreign Minister. Julie Bishop, this immigration deal the Government is doing with Cambodia – Australia planning on send up to 1000 refugees to settle there and in return Australia is making a payment to Cambodia estimated by some people to run into tens of millions of dollars, well certainly millions of dollars.

Now we know that Cambodia is judged internationally as being one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. I am wondering as Foreign Minister what checks have you carried out to ensure the money Australia is giving to Cambodia isn’t going to end up in the pockets of government officials?

JULIE BISHOP: Well first thing’s first John, I haven’t seen the detail of any offer from Cambodia in relation to resettlement of genuine refugees. Cambodia is a member of the Bali Process and all the members of the Bali Process has committed to finding solutions to dismantle the people smuggling trade and resettle genuine refugees.

I visited Cambodia on the 21st and 22nd of February, I met with senior government figures in the Cambodian Government. I discussed our key bilateral priorities and regional challenges that we have a common interest in, including people smuggling.

Cambodia is, as I see it, a changing nation. I don’t know if you have ever visited there John or when the last time you were there, but it is quite different from the impression some people get of Cambodia. We invest a lot of money in Cambodia – I think it is something like $80 million a year in aid – and the country has come a long way from the very dark days of a few decades ago…

JOHN MCGLUE: [interrupting] Well I’ve got to say to you that I haven’t been there but people who have spent time in Cambodia tell me there are concerns there for human rights, even at the best of times. It scores really poorly on all the international ratings in terms of corruption and in terms of the activities of government officials when it comes to handling international money.

JULIE BISHOP: I think it is safe to say that what the Cambodian Government wants to do – and I had this discussion with the Prime Minister – what the Cambodian Government wants to do is be a stronger, more cooperative, regional partner and it sees an opportunity to help out other countries who are faced with the onslaught of the people smuggling trade.

They are offering to be of assistance, to cooperate, to be a better regional partner and I think that the kind of package that we could put together would provide Cambodia with the opportunity to prove that.

I met with the leader of the Opposition, they were very keen for Cambodia to be more than a poor country or a developing country, they want to take their place as a developed country in our region. I think we should give them every opportunity to put the past behind them and become a cooperative contributing member of our region – the ASEAN region.

JOHN MCGLUE: Fourteen minutes past four on Drive. Julie Bishop, can I take you back home to the Federal Budget. No doubting that Australia’s finances are facing enormous challenges, but what has gone so wrong with how your Government has sold the Budget and the measures which your colleagues Matthias Cormann and Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott are telling us these measures are needed, but what’s gone so wrong with the selling of it?

JULIE BISHOP: I have been out in Western Sydney today with Nick Varvaris the Member for Barton and we have been walking through the streets – not with any security, not with any police, not with any media – so just walking through shopping centres and people were coming up to us asking questions.

I think the problem is there is a lot of misinformation out there but when you explain to people that pensions are not being cut – in fact pensions will go up in September and they will go up again in March as they always do – people are relieved to hear it. When I tell them in fact higher education funding is increasing, it is not being cut, when I tell them there is an increase to public hospital funding, I think a 36 per cent increase over the next  four years, people are relieved.

Yes we are trying to make structural changes to welfare, to health and to education, but these are all necessary decisions that have to be taken because we are living beyond our means. Labor was spending billions and billions of dollars more than was being received in revenue. Spending was out of control and we were borrowing to pay for it. You know, we are borrowing a billion dollars every month just to pay the interest bill on Labor’s debt. We cannot go on like that so there were some hard decisions that had to be taken. We had to ask everyone to contribute, the deficit levy that people on the highest tax level for example.

But overall the feedback that I have had even when I was in Perth last weekend – I wasn’t just meeting Hugh Jackman I was also meeting constituents – they understood that Australia had to live within its means. They didn’t elect us to continue Labor’s debt and deficit path, they elected us to take the tough decisions to put the Budget back in order.

JOHN MCGLUE:  One final issue for you Julie Bishop, that incident at Sydney University last Friday when you were jostled and bumped by a group of students protesting against Budget cuts to education. On the television vision you appear to smile all the way through, but how did you really feel then?

JULIE BISHOP:  I wasn’t smiling, I was panting, I had run up the steps because the security guards had taken me to one door to enter this event – which ironically was to announce scholarships for Sydney University students funded by the Government, funded by the taxpayer, so they could undertake study at a university in our region – so I tried to get into the event but the students prevented me from going in.

So they took me to another route and other students were trying to prevent me from getting in there. So the security detail said you just have to run for it, so I ran up the stairs and we had to get in and there was no other way.

I heard somewhere that these students were saying I deliberately ran into the crowd – we had no choice, I had no other way of getting into this event where I was the guest and I didn’t think it was fair to the students who were waiting to be given their scholarships for me not to turn up.

My point is this, it was intimidating, it was confronting but I just had to put on a brave face and go through to get into this event. I understand why people want to protest and I am a great supporter of free speech and the right to protest in this country, but it has to be done peacefully and it shouldn’t prevent people from going about their business and my business on that day was to get into an event to give students a scholarship to study overseas.

JOHN MCGLUE:  What about now reflecting on what did happen, I think few people will condone the behaviour, the aggression of the students, but can you understand their frustration and beyond the students who are physically there can you understand the genuine concern about what these changes to funding could do to education?

JULIE BISHOP:  John, I have been an Education Minister and Australian universities have to compete not just with each other but with international universities. They need to have the ability to set their own fees, that doesn’t mean fees will go up, that means they need to be competitive.

Students also are subsidised by the taxpayers – quite significantly – and less than 40 per cent of students or young people go to universities, so over 60 per cent of the population are supporting their education. University students over their lifetime earn a lot more money on average than somebody who didn’t go to university, so I think it is fair that students should pay for some of their education.

They have a loan scheme that means they don’t have to pay back a cent of the cost of going to university until such time that they are earning a significant salary. We want our universities to be amongst the best in the world and our students to get one of the best educations in the world, but it also has to be affordable.

JOHN MCGLUE:  Minister, thank you for your time today.

JULIE BISHOP:  My pleasure John.

- Ends -

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555