CHRIS KENNY: Thanks for joining us Foreign Minister.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure Chris, good to be with you.
CHRIS KENNY: The first thing I want to start with is the Middle East. We’re seeing Israel intensify its activities in Gaza. Civilians are being killed and at least 150 people killed already. I notice our Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma is down at Gaza as we speak, I think helping Australians to leave Gaza. Can you bring us up to date with how many Australians are in Gaza? How many are actually taking the opportunity to leave?
JULIE BISHOP: Well Chris we are deeply worried about the deteriorating security situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and over the weekend I urged any Australians in Gaza to leave as soon as possible and offered the Australian Embassy to assist them to leave. And our Ambassador has been on the Israel-Gaza border and they are assisting Australians get to Amman, to Jordan, where they will be able to undertake onward travel.
We know that there are about 20 or so Australians who are registered and were in Gaza. I believe we’ve assisted about 17 leave at this stage but there may well be many more as dual nationals but we are making it quite clear that we are ready to assist them to leave today, Sunday, otherwise they’ll have to make their own way out and it could be very difficult.
CHRIS KENNY: Now from the way you’re framing this it sounds as if we don’t expect this action is coming to a climax. We know that at least 150 people have been killed already. We know that at least 700 rockets have been fired out of Gaza. There have been reports of rockets coming into Israel from the north from inside Lebanon so is your information that this action by Israel is likely to escalate? That we haven’t seen the worst of it yet?
JULIE BISHOP: We have called on all sides to de-escalate, we’ve joined with the international community in calling for a ceasefire but it doesn’t appear as if heed has been taken of that. Indeed, our Ambassador told me that last night he was in a bomb shelter with his children because there were bombs coming in, or rockets coming in, on Tel Aviv, the main city there in Israel and so it looks as if the situation is deteriorating even further.
We are deeply concerned for the safety of Australians, that’s why we’ve urged people to leave Gaza but there are rockets being fired on Tel Aviv so it doesn’t sound as if the situation is going to improve any time soon.
CHRIS KENNY: Now we know that the western media very often doesn’t focus on those rockets that are fired out of Gaza and have been fired out repeatedly over many, many months and years now and we also know about the tragic death of those three Israeli teenagers and reprisal death in Israel of a young Arab boy. Terrible situation undoubtedly but are you satisfied that Israel’s response now, especially when we’re talking about casualties of at least 150 people, that Israel’s response to this is proportionate?
JULIE BISHOP: Chris the retaliatory actions by both sides are deeply regrettable and we hope that both sides would cease but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The militants in Gaza are still firing rockets into Israel and while that continues Israel will hit back and that’s what we see happening at present and that’s why we’re so concerned to make sure that Australians can get out but I’m concerned that the situation is escalating that the conflict is getting worse not better. And we have been part of a UN Security Council resolution that was discussed over the weekend as well calling on both sides to stop the retaliation, to stop firing on each other and bring some sort of ceasefire to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
CHRIS KENNY: We’ve seen protests in Australian today from Palestinian communities understandably concerned about the situation but in Sydney I understand the flag of Hezbollah was raised creating some consternation understandably. Does that increase your concerns about extremism in this country being exacerbated by this conflict?
JULIE BISHOP: Well that’s deeply unfortunate that people would be waving Hezbollah flags. We are concerned about the Middle East generally. The situation in Syria is not improving, the situation in Iraq is exceedingly tense, exceedingly difficult, and it’s hard to see any political solutions any time soon. So not only Syria and Iraq but also the increasing escalation between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it really is very challenging for us to come to terms with it and it does have an impact on Australia.
As I’ve been saying for some time now, Australians have been drawn particularly to the conflict in Syria and Iraq and are going away as foreign fighters and we’re doing what we can to prevent them from doing that. Not only is it against the law, but also they are putting themselves in very grave danger.
CHRIS KENNY: Well, another alleged jihadist sympathiser, an Australian 29-year-old, Robert Cerantonio, has been arrested in the last couple of days in the Philippines. Will he be brought back to Australia and will he face charges here?
JULIE BISHOP: I don’t want to say anything that in any way prejudices the work of the Philippine authorities. As I understand it he’s currently in detention with the Philippine authorities. Now what they do with him is a matter for them and on his return to Australia, if he is sent to Australia because he is an Australian citizen, then obviously our authorities will do what they can.
But it’s rather interesting, he’s notorious for being a supporter online of extremist activities and calling on people to join him in Syria or Iraq and it seems that he is just a fraud because he was saying that he was fighting in Syria and Iraq when all the time he was holed up in a flat in the Philippines. So presumably he’s a fraud, trying to dupe people into this dangerous activity. So what happens to him will be a matter for the authorities.
CHRIS KENNY: But do you want him to be brought back to Australia? Is it your preference given your advice that he should come back to Australia and that you should be able to charge him with terror-related offences?
JULIE BISHOP: Chris, as you well know from your days in foreign affairs, I am not able to talk about specific passport matters because of the privacy obligations that I have and I’m not in a position to talk about security matters to this extent - but I can say that the Australian Government will do what we can all options are on the table in terms of ensuring that Australians are safe from terrorism, or extremist threats that are a security risk in this country.
CHRIS KENNY: Okay, lots more to talk about in the region - of course during the week we had the election for a new Indonesian President. It looks like Joko Widodo will win, although final result isn’t through yet. A lot of people would have seen him, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as Australia’s preferred victor. I know you wouldn’t be picking winners but he’s a very moderate democrat candidate and it looks like he’s won. What have you done to try and make sure that Australia builds a relationship with him? Have you and Tony Abbott met him? And will you be looking to go up to Jakarta for the inauguration and perhaps get a reciprocal visit as soon as possible?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, first Chris the electoral process has not concluded. The final result is not announced until the 22nd of July. The President and the Vice President won’t be inaugurated until the 20th of October so there’s some way to go and I note that President Yudhoyono held a short press conference the other day saying that the electoral process was still under way. He called on the parties to refrain from having celebratory events because the official process still has to be concluded.
There is an indication that Joko will in fact win but you’ll note that the other candidate Prabowo has not conceded so I would rather wait until there’s been a formal announcement, and as you would expect as a fellow democracy, we will work happily with whomever the people of Indonesia choose as their President.
I have met Prabowo, I’ve not met Joko Widodo, but I’m hoping that should there be a formal announcement either way we will be in a position to make contact as soon as possible. Australia has a very robust and strong and deep relationship with Indonesia anyway and we engage on so many levels across so many areas of government and I expect that to continue.
I also think that Indonesia should be congratulated on holding an election with 190 million registered voters that appeared to go very smoothly and quite peacefully so Indonesia has really embraced democracy over the last decade or so.
CHRIS KENNY: Thousands of islands and 120 million voters and..
JULIE BISHOP: 190 million registered voters.
CHRIS KENNY: ..and they did better than the West Australian Senate election with the Australian Election Commission – so some achievement.
This week of course also was the very successful visit to Australia by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A lot of bipartisan support from the Labor Party on the Free Trade Agreement and on other measures to further strengthen the relationship with Japan but this from Bill Shorten this morning – “I am uncomfortable at undertones where we see us trying to be used to have a debate about fearing the rise of China”.
Julie Bishop what is Bill Shorten on about there and why do the Left in particular seem to see any stride forward, any strengthening of the relationship with either Japan or the United States, or even non-alliance countries like India, as some sort of threat against China or some sort of effort to contain China?
JULIE BISHOP: It is inexplicable, I have no idea what he’s getting at. We are far more sophisticated in this country in terms of our foreign policy outlook. We are able to have a strong and deep relationship with Japan. We are able at the same time to have a strong and deep relationship with China. We’re in the process of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with China. We are in the process of undertaking joint military exercises with China – it’s called RIMPAC. We are in the process of engaging with China in the New Colombo Plan whereby students will be awarded scholarships funded by the Australian Government to undertake study in China from 2015.
So we have a many layered, complex, deep relationship with China as we do with Indonesia, as we do with Japan, as we do with South Korea. And when the Chinese President comes to Australia for the G20, when Xi Jinping comes to Australia, he’ll receive a very warm welcome from the Australian Government. After all Prime Minister Abbott has been in China this year, a very successful visit to China; he also went to Japan and had a very successful visit to Japan. So it’s a rather unsophisticated, shallow way of looking at the world if you don’t think that we can manage more than one relationship at a time. And of course we’ve got a relationship with the United States our most important strategic partner. A competent government can manage these relationships.
CHRIS KENNY: Indeed that should be the case. I do want to move on – the other issue that’s bubbling along in the background this week is the asylum seekers on board a customs vessel, 153 asylum seekers I think, Sri Lankans largely, possibly via India. Do you know where this vessel is and can you tell Australians whether or not those asylum seekers are being processed on that ship while we await any action through the High Court challenge?
JULIE BISHOP: Well Chris first, as you mentioned, this is before the High Court and so I’m not going to give a running commentary on a part heard matter in the High Court. Secondly, these are operational matters under Operation Sovereign Borders and according to the policies laid down by General Campbell in dealing with operational matters, I won’t provide a commentary because that would provide, possibly, information to the criminal syndicates that are plying this people smuggling trade.
CHRIS KENNY: Well presumably they are being processed on the customs vessel?
JULIE BISHOP: Chris we are well aware of our international obligations. We’re well aware of our undertakings to the Court and we’re abiding by them. But there is a very compelling reason why we should ensure that the people smuggling trade is dismantled. In fact, there are 1200 compelling reasons because that’s the number of men, women and children that we believe drowned at sea under the previous Government’s policies which in fact put the people smugglers back into business, but that’s not going to happen on our watch.
CHRIS KENNY: I understand those arguments. As you know I’ve been a vocal supporter of strong border protection measures but I’m looking at the situation unfolding now. We saw when Labor was in power successful High Court action that prevented them implementing the Malaysia Solution. We don’t know what the High Court will decide on this matter but if it were to strike out any of the activities that Operation Sovereign Borders is undertaking now that would be a blow to your strong border protection measures. Have you, as a Government, have you – as a Foreign Minister, done any work to consider what options Australia would have as regards to withdrawal from the UN Refugee Convention if you felt that these legal challenges were thwarting your policy?
JULIE BISHOP: Well first things first Chris. We are dealing with the High Court challenge at present and we will meet what obstacles come our way, should they come our way, but we have been absolutely resolute..
CHRIS KENNY: Can I just ask you whether you’ve done some work on this? It’s been discussed in the past. Has the Department done some work on the option, on the possibilities, the pros and cons on withdrawing from the UN Refugee Convention?
JULIE BISHOP: Chris our focus is on implementing the policies that we took to the last election, that we promised the Australian people we would implement and that’s what we’ve been doing. We promised we would stop the boats and that’s precisely what we’ve been doing. So our policies have been working and our Operation Sovereign Borders has been exceedingly successful in dismantling the people smuggling trade. And unless there is an intervention by the High Court, obviously we don’t know what decision the High Court will come to, we’re going to continue to meet that promise that we gave to the Australian people and of course we are aware of our international obligations and our undertakings to the court.
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