ELLEN FANNING After the army declared martial law, the political situation is still unclear. The army, which denies staging a coup, yesterday forced rival groups into crisis talks ending the confrontation. But those talks ended inconclusively though they are due to resume again later today.
Meanwhile, the acting Prime Minister says he is still in charge and is proposing democratic elections for August the third. The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joins us from Sydney, she is on a car phone this morning. Good morning Minister and welcome again to Breakfast.
JULIE BISHOP: Good morning, good to be with you.
ELLEN FANNING: Eighteen coups in eighty years in Thailand, but the military says this one is not a coup. How do you see it?
JULIE BISHOP: Our embassy in Bangkok reported to me that the military yesterday were continuing efforts to use the martial law to resolve Thailand’s political impasse. So they are saying it is not a coup and to date the impression they are giving is that they are trying to resolve the political situation.
The key political leaders gave little public comment but they did attend this inclusive meeting convened by the army chief – he is the director of the military’s peace and order maintaining command – and while no conclusion was reached they did agree to a second meeting, to be held today.
That is a positive sign even though there wasn’t any agreement - the fact that the political leaders are prepared to meet for a second meeting - the caretaker government was represented – there were a number of ministers present – the party leader of the opposition Democratic Party was there, the pro-government red shirt group was represented, the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee was there, the speaker of the senate, the secretary-general of the election commission, the police commissioner and the like.
So I think we have to see that as a positive sign, of course, an election would hopefully resolve this and Australia’s position is to encourage all parties to resolve their political differences through peaceful democratic processes.
ELLEN FANNING: So how does Australia view the army’s actions in Thailand. Do you see it as a positive step, putting soldiers on the street in this way to try and bring peace and resolution, do you accept that?
JULIE BISHOP: I understand that the streets of Bangkok were calm yesterday, there were no incidents of political violence. Our embassy reports that the military didn’t have a heavy presence on the streets of Bangkok. I have been in Bangkok previously when they have been coups and there have been curfews and a very heavy military presence.
So this one sounds as if the army chief and the Royal Thai Army in general are trying to resolve the political impasse. From Australia’s point of view, we just hope that further violence will be avoided, we hope that an election will be held in which all parties can agree to participate and that can be held as soon as possible.
ELLEN FANNING: Late last year, together with the then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, you were anticipating elections in Thailand I think in February. Now that didn’t happen, now we are promised elections in August, what is likely to change?
Because if the loyalists of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – they’d almost certainly win – and then you have a recipe for continuing division and protest don’t you?
JULIE BISHOP: That is a matter for the Thai people to decide. We just hope that the electoral and political reform processes return to a democratic and peaceful way of resolving political differences. We are encouraging parties to resolve their differences.
I think that they all met yesterday and have agreed to meet again is a positive sign. I note that the peace and order maintaining command issued an order that no arrests be made during the meeting and there are some people already under arrest warrants for insurrection. There seems to be some goodwill to resolve the situation and we have to remain optimistic.
ELLEN FANNING: If I could turn now to Cambodia. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen – who’s ruled that very poor nation for three decades – has confirmed this week his country will accept Australian asylum seekers.
We are still waiting on the details of that deal but the Immigration Minister told this program this week that if people on Nauru are found to be genuine refugees and they refuse to resettle in Cambodia than their claim for asylum could be reassessed. Would that be legal and appropriate?
JULIE BISHOP: I will leave these matters to the Minister for Immigration…
ELLEN FANNING: [interrupting] Forgive me through, you are the Foreign Minister and a lawyer – a good one – what is your view of it?
JULIE BISHOP: This is a matter for us to determine if that situation arises, I haven’t looked at it closely, the Immigration Minister raised it yesterday. What I have been focussing on is maintaining good relations with countries in our region and that includes Cambodia. I also visited Cambodia earlier this year, I met with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and other Cambodian leaders.
They were very keen to be part of a regional solution, not part of a regional problem, and so they were offering to work with Australia in relation to the Bali Process in which all members agreed to try and stop the people smuggling trade that has seen the deaths of around 1200 people trying to make the journey to Australia. So I found Cambodia to be very keen to be part of a solution and not be seen as a problem.
ELLEN FANNING: At the same time it is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has a patchy record in terms of human rights, your job is to be the Foreign Minister and to maintain good relations, are you worried we might be on a slippery slope if we start passing our border problems onto countries like this that are arguably less able to deal with them?
JULIE BISHOP: These countries are all members of the Bali Process and membership of the Bali Process means that you commit to regional solutions and that is what Cambodia is offering to do.
ELLEN FANNING: [interrupting] Are they able to do it, I guess is the question.
JULIE BISHOP: They are talking about a very small number of people. They are very keen to have people working, they are looking for people who are able bodied, who would be able to contribute to Cambodian society and they made that quite plain to me that they would be very keen to have willing workers, people who could be integrated into their community and help Cambodia rebuild.
It is a country with a great ambition to move from being a poor country to a developing country to being a developed country as other nations in South East Asia and North Asia have done.
ELLEN FANNING: Are people fleeing persecution, desperate refugees, really the people who are best able to be economic warriors in Cambodia?
JULIE BISHOP: I believe that if people are seeking to flee persecution they will be looking for a safe haven and that is what Cambodia is offering.
ELLEN FANNING: If we could move onto the aid budget and by far the single budget cut last week was to the foreign aid budget with the Government abandoning Labor’s commitment to lift Australia’s aid budget to the 0.5 per cent of national income. Does that make it difficult for you as Foreign Minister as you go around the world trying to explain that position?
JULIE BISHOP: In fact, the figures are somewhat misleading because the claim that I have seen in the media and being run by Labor was that we’ve cut $7.5 billion from the aid budget. What was done is stabilise the aid budget at $5 billion.
What Labor was promising in the out years – that is beyond the forward estimates, so nobody knew about this, it wasn’t public – is they were maintaining they were going to increase the aid budget in 2017 by an additional $3.5 billion in order to meet this target of 0.5 per cent of gross national income. Now I know there is no way a Labor government would increase the aid budget by an additional $3.5 billion in one year. So Labor’s figures were misleading.
What I have offered the regional partners and the recipient countries is stability and certainty. What I offer the Australian people is affordability and a reasonable aid budget that is actually judged against performance benchmarks with an element of mutual accountability so that everybody – the donor in Australia, the recipient in other countries – are accountable for the way the aid budget is spent.
So that certainty is much appreciated and our priorities are appreciated, we are wanting to promote prosperity to reduce poverty and enhance stability with an increased focus on our region – the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific – as opposed to trying to spread the aid budget thinly across the globe as the previous Labor government had been doing.
ELLEN FANNING: So what is your long-term commitment particularly in terms of those millennium goals that tried to get developed countries to sign up to a long-term commitment to a proposition of their GDP to go to the developing world?
JULIE BISHOP: Our aid budget is stabilised at over $5 billion this year and next year and then it will grow by the Consumer Price Index thereafter. We will honour our commitment to annual increases in the aid budget.
But it is not the amount, it is how you spend it. It is not just the $5 billion, it is leveraging that $5 billion with the private sector – who already make a significant contribution, particularly in the poorer and developing countries – so leveraging the private sector funding so that we can get the best value for the money we invest.
On the millennium development goals, they will be reviewed next year globally and Australia has always taken part in this discussion and will continue to do so. But what I find troubling Ellen is that despite massive investment of billions of dollars of aid particularly into the Pacific there are some countries that will not meet one of the millennium development goals in 2015. So whatever we are doing is not having the results we would all hope.
So I will be announcing shortly our new priorities – I call it the new aid paradigm – the way we will be able to get better results, lift people’s living standards, alleviate poverty, by driving economic development in these countries. They have to have a sustainable economy in order to sustain their communities.
ELLEN FANNING: Question about domestic politics, you are the only woman in the Cabinet, so can I ask you the Prime Minister seems to be trying very hard with his paid parental leave scheme to demonstrate to women that he really understands their concerns.
He has a very senior woman as his chief of staff – women all around him – and yet he keeps getting caught up with these gaffs like we saw yesterday. The wink when a woman who worked on a phone sex line called into talkback, when he said to Fiona Scott his candidate had sex appeal and so forth.
Can I ask if he is such a sensitive new age guy why do you think he keeps getting himself into strife with his stuff?
JULIE BISHOP: I think people focus on minutiae. I spoke to Prime Minister Abbott yesterday. He said that he was on radio, John raised an eyebrow like “do you want to continue with this call” or something like that and the Prime Minister winked back at him to say “it is ok mate”.
He couldn’t speak because he was on radio so for somebody to wink to say “it is ok mate” I don’t find anything sexist about that. I think that people are far too quick to try and judge others through this prism of everything being about misogyny or sexism, I don’t read it that way.
Tony Abbott treats women with respect, we are good friends, good colleagues, we work very well together. Believe me, I have worked in some sexist environments and this is not one of them. I find Cabinet meetings very respectful of other people’s opinions. I get my chance to have my say, people listen to me and that is the way I expect other women to be treated and that is what I see.
ELLEN FANNING: Julie Bishop thank you so much for making the time for us this morning.
JULIE BISHOP: It’s been my pleasure.
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